The role of social workers at young offender institutions

Social workers’ arrival at young offender institutions in 2005 was long overdue as inmates’ relationship with prison officers was, and remains, fraught. Anabel Unity Sale visits Werrington YOI and finds out how social workers have made a difference

Wearing a grey tracksuit Ian McDonald* wraps both his legs around the back of his neck and smiles proudly. The 18-year-old learned this impressive move in the yoga class he has attended every Tuesday for the last seven months. Yoga is not a typical pastime for a teenage male but McDonald is not a typical teenager. He is one of the 155 15 to 18-year-old males in custody at Werrington Young Offender Institution (YOI) in Stoke on Trent, where he is serving 18 months for attempted armed robbery.

Werrington YOI is just outside Stoke-on-Trent, on a busy road next door to a farm. A cheery yellow sign describes it as Werrington College and, initially, nothing about it suggests it is a YOI. It is only when you make your way down the long drive that you realise the cluster of assorted buildings ahead are surrounded by high metal fences topped with barbed wire – which look somewhat incongruous next to the neat lawns, colourful hanging baskets and blooming Union Jack flowerbeds.

Werrington was built as a school in the late 1800s and various buildings have been added over time to provide space for activities such as painting and decorating, sewing and mechanics. It has two wings: Denby for the newly imprisoned boys and for those young men being disciplined for violent behaviour; and Doulton, where most inmates are housed.

Sitting next to McDonald and admiring his double-jointedness is Maxine Holt, Werrington’s social worker. She is responsible for identifying which of the teenagers and young men in the YOI are subject to a care order, looked after or leaving care. Having done this she works alongside the youth offending team officer to establish what the boy’s needs are and how they can be supported. As McDonald went into care as a seven-year-old, Holt has worked closely with him during his time in Werrington.

All YOIs now have a dedicated social worker under arrangements between the Youth Justice Board and local authorities (see The Safeguarding Role). The YJB has provided £1m from April 2005 until April 2007 for 25 social workers to be placed across the juvenile estate. Most establishments have one social worker but Feltham and Ashfield have two. The social workers are appointed by the local council with whom there is a locally led agreement. This encourages the local authority to maintain or establish a relationship with the young person, be vigilant over their needs, analyse the young person’s situation and highlight any areas of concern, and work together effectively on their release.

A YJB spokesperson says it takes the welfare of young people in custody “very seriously and understands that reducing risk factors is often key to stopping repeated criminal and antisocial behaviour”. Although paying for social workers to be placed in YOIs is not strictly within the remit of the YJB, the spokesperson says they began the initiative “as an act of good faith and willingness to kick start the system”. Negotiations are taking place to ensure the YOIs continue to receive funding for these posts after next spring.

So what is the day-to-day reality for social workers at YOIs? How do they practise social work in a punitive environment? And how do the young people respond? Holt has a caseload of 20-30 boys and young men and works with them from their induction at the YOI to doing joint assessments with the youth offending and substance misuse teams.

The lack of suitable accommodation for the young men once they are released from custody is a constant headache for Holt, as some authorities refuse to accommodate the boys because of their previous behaviour. “So many of the lads here have gone through different placements that I have had providers say to me ‘no, we are not having them’ without even doing an assessment on them.”

Despite the problems, Holt finds her job very rewarding. “I enjoy working with the lads and listening to what they have been through and fighting for the right to get them the service they deserve.”

McDonald does not hold back when asked what he thinks about social workers: “I’ve seen loads of social workers because I was raised in care. Some were really annoying but some were effective and got the job done. The staff in Werrington are nice and I get on with them.” One of the biggest benefits for McDonald is being able to talk to Holt as he found this difficult to do with some of the social workers he met while in care. He adds: “I can talk to Miss but I can’t talk to some of the officers here. They don’t understand because they are like two planks, they are thick.” In fact, the only complaint McDonald has is the food: “There’s no salt in it!”

Last month Werrington was among a number of YOIs, including Feltham, Hindley, Stoke Heath and Onley, highlighted in the Mubarek Inquiry report as needing to improve. This issue is extremely important to Marilyn Welsh, head of safeguarding at Werrington who comes from a social work background. She has spent the past six years battling to improve the situation for young people in custody: “It’s been a struggle because no one is interested; politically it is not attractive to fight for young offenders. From our social work perspective these are children who have been damaged, abused and let down by society.”

Following a long career in social services, including time seconded to the YJB, Welsh joined Werrington in January this year. She says that people with a social work background are often shocked on entering a YOI: “When you first come in it can be harsh to see young people being locked up, it goes against all your social work beliefs and ethos and is sometimes quite difficult.”

Down on Doulton wing 60 boys and young men are having their lunch after completing a morning of educational activities. They are sitting at plastic tables in the middle of the wing with their backs to the cells they will spend the afternoon in while staff complete their monthly training sessions.

David Mitchell* and Paul Evans,* both aged 18, are cellmates on Doulton. Their cell is spotless, with a host of toiletries arranged neatly on a table and walls taken over by posters of Beyonce and flash cars. It is a world away from the stark, utterly bare cell on Denby used for boys who have trashed their cells or caused a major disturbance. Mitchell says this is “the best prison” he has been in because of the amount of association time they get at Werrington.

So what do the young offenders want to do once they leave custody? For McDonald his plans are clear: he wants to get a night job so he can save money to do a three-year diploma at the British Wheel of Yoga. He also wants to take a class in British Sign Language and eventually run yoga classes for people with hearing loss. The one thing he would change about life in a YOI is the attitude of some staff: “They should be a bit more sensitive to the young people they are working with because they can be blunt and it does my head in.”

Chris Cole* (see ‘Social Workers are easier to talk to’) wants to settle down with his girlfriend after release but is convinced he won’t get a job as a scaffolder because of his criminal record. “My record is as long as my legs, I’m not proud of it but I’ve been doing crime since I was 10.” His brother Mark is more hopeful that he can train to be a bricklayer.

What Welsh wants for all those in the juvenile estate is a commitment from the government to improve the support services available to young people after they leave custody. “As much as we can do in prisons, these young people are still going out to nothing. We have to see funding put into resettlement if we are to get the re-offending rates down.”
* Names have been changed

The safeguarding role
Social workers were introduced into all England and Wales young offender institutions in June 2005 after the Lord Justice Munby High Court judgement and the Joint Safeguards Review. The prison service, in conjunction with the Youth Justice Board, the then Social Services Inspectorate, the chief inspector of prisons and social services completed a review of safeguarding arrangements within the juvenile estate. Safeguarding is an inclusive approach to the care of juveniles in custody and includes suicide prevention and self-harm management, anti-bullying, child protection, anti-discrimination and an overall holistic approach to care in custody. This Joint Safeguards Review also considered the role of other statutory agencies in light of the High Court judgement by Lord Justice Munby in November 2002, which ruled that the Children Act 1989 should apply to children in custody.

‘Social Workers are easier to talk to’
Werrington inmate Chris Cole,* aged 17, was sentenced to three months and three weeks for driving while disqualified and breaching the terms of his licence. He is in custody along with his 16-year-old brother Mark Cole,* who is serving three years for grievous bodily harm. The Cole brothers share a cell and say they look out for each other. Chris appreciates having a social  worker on hand  some of the institution’s officers: “I can talk to the social worker and youth offending team officer because they know what I’m about. It’s the way the officers speak to me… like I’m a piece of shit. So I raise my voice and they raise theirs and it all kicks off.”

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