Young adults in prison: shunted around and cut off from family

New research by Community Care has revealed the appalling
effects the growing prison population is having on offenders aged
between 18 and 20 and questions how much longer the government can
ignore its own pledge to improve provision for young adult

This group of offenders have long been described as the “lost
generation” by chief prisons inspector Anne Owers. They are at an
age where their lives could be turned around, but this cannot
happen while prisons become increasingly overcrowded.

Our research, carried out by the Prison Reform Trust, found that
offenders are often moved to other prisons at short notice in order
to make room for newcomers and serve their sentences in several
establishments. Poor mental health, self-harm and disruption to
education are just a few by-products of “the churn”.

During Labour’s first term, the government concentrated on
improving regimes for under-18s and invested heavily. The Youth
Justice Board was established to drive through reforms and improve
conditions, youth offending teams were set up to work with young
people and a range of intensive community sentences were introduced
as alternatives to custody.

But 18 to 20 year olds did not benefit from these improvements.
Young adults are placed in local adult prisons with designated
young offender wings or YOIs specifically for under-21s. Both
continue to lack a regime specifically designed for this

Enver Solomon, Prison Reform Trust senior policy officer and the
research’s author, said: “Far too many older teenagers are being
moved around the prison system, experiencing impoverished regimes
involving long hours locked up, without the support and supervision
they require if they are to have any hope of leading a responsible
life on release.”

Even Home Office minister Paul Goggins admitted in May that it was
not the numbers in the prison system that caused the problems, but
the amount of movement.

In her inspection report of Lancaster Farms, Owers highlighted that
between 13 October last year and 14 January this year, 303 young
adults were moved from the YOI to other establishments.

In Community Care’s research, half of the independent monitoring
boards, which are made up of voluntary members, noted problems
caused by “the churn”. They warned of the disruption to education
as some offenders were sent to establishments that do not run the
courses they were part way through. A third of young adults
questioned also complained of this disruption.

Many end up locked in their cells for long hours, while the
monitoring board at High Down prison has reported that some young
offenders become so depressed at this prospect they self-harm and
refuse food.

Two-thirds of the young adults also said that being moved to
another prison had made it more difficult to keep in contact with
their families, a key theme for healthy resettlement.

Nacro’s head of youth crime Chris Stanley says he wants to see some
of the good lessons from the juvenile system applied to the young
adults, who have suffered because resources have been diverted to

“It really is a Cinderella service. They are making the transition
from child to adulthood and can be just as vulnerable as a 16 year
old,” he adds.

The Home Office rejects the idea that it is failing to meet the
needs of young offenders but concedes: “We recognise that
population pressures can impact on the work carried out to address
offending behaviour and can also impact on the distance many
offenders are held from home.”

But it insists the Prison Service is committed to helping offenders
maintain family ties and the government is looking to ensure courts
have alternatives to custody.

But while the government appears committed to improving the
situation, the sheer volumes in prison are hampering efforts to
rehabilitate this group – proven by the high re-offending rates
alone. Before any of these plans can work the numbers in jail have
to be reduced or the situation will only worsen.

  • A Lost Generation: the Experiences of Young People in Prison
    from 020 7251 5070

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