Young people on remand are being moved out of Feltham young offender institution into adult prisons because of a shortage of places at the YOI.
From 1 May, 18-20 year-olds in the south-east will go to Brixton, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs prisons in London instead of Feltham, which is the main youth remand centre in the region.
Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, said she understood designated places for 18-20 year-olds at the YOI were being freed up to accommodate the demand for juvenile places.
Currently, Feltham holds up to 764 young people and the site is split between juveniles and young adults.
Owers warned that 18- to 20-year-olds would be placed “in the most pressured part of the system” in adult prisons, where regimes were not suited to their needs.
“This is just one of the many consequences of current prison population pressures, and it will just shift the pressure at Feltham to local adult prisons,” she said. “There are specific problems in the south-east which has insufficient remand and juvenile places.”
Owers also raised concerns that prison overcrowding meant it was “extremely difficult” to do checks on vulnerable young people. “It’s just a case of sending someone where there is space,” she said.
A prison service source said that young adults with mental health problems or learning difficulties would be sent to Feltham instead, and if any were considered “unsuitable” once they arrived at one of the adult prisons they would have to be transferred to somewhere more appropriate within 24 hours.
The source added that young adults would have designated cells in the adult jails and prison staff would “buddy” them with “trusted” prisoners.
However, Lord Eric Avebury, who has raised concerns about the plan in parliament, said prison staff were “not happy” about the move.
He told peers in the House of Lords last week: “If these young people are to be helped to live normal lives, they need specialist care during their sentence and after release. Sticking them in adult prisons where they will experience an acute lack of purposeful activity and accredited training in offending behaviour programmes, as well as insufficient exercise and association, ineffective personal officer schemes, poor mental health provision and patchy resettlement help, is a disaster.”
Under the law, once a young person who offends reaches 17 they can be held on remand in adult prisons. Once they are convicted they are sent to young offender institutions, but the government has been trying to push through legislation to place them in adult prisons instead via the Offender Management Bill
Last week, the government said it would put the plan on hold while it completed a review of provision for 18-20 year-olds in the prison system after an outcry from campaigners.
In a report in February, Owers said young adults did best in institutions dedicated to their needs. But she added that dedicated units in adult jails could prove a more realistic solution.