“Battery farm” child prisons criticised as secure children’s homes face further cuts

The principle purpose of the youth justice system in England and Wales is the prevention of offending and re-offending (Crime and Disorder Act, 1998). Therefore, it would seem to make sense to make policy decisions on the basis of evidence of ‘what works’.

As the Youth Justice Board (YJB) plans to decommission more beds in secure children homes, the Howard League for Penal Reform has released a briefing on the secure estate: Future Insecure, calling for custodial decisions to be based on evidence of effectiveness and safety, rather than simply cost. The briefing comes only weeks after two children died while in prison service custody.

Recent figures released by the Ministry of Justice have shown that serious or other life-threatening warning signs have occurred 285 times when children have been restrained in STCs over the past five years, including hospitalisation, loss of consciousness and damage to internal organs. Despite their institutionalised failings and the risks that they pose to the safety of children, no places have been decommissioned in STCs since they opened. 90% children in Young Offenders Institutes said they wanted to stop offending but haven’t found any opportunity in the current system to support them in doing so.

Even more troubling is the statistic that 9 out of 10 of the most violent institutions in the country are Young Offenders Institutes.

The chief executive of the The Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said, “The recent reduction in the number of children in custody is to be welcomed. However this should have been used as an opportunity to close failing prisons, which cannot meet children’s needs.  The battery farm model of young offender institutions, with hundreds of troubled children under one roof, is wholly inappropriate, while the privately run secure training centres have a dismal history around the use of restraint.

“Already this year we have seen the suicides of two children in prison custody.  A change of policy that prioritises the safety of children and invests in meaningful attempts to reduce re-offending cannot come too quickly. ”

The Howard League believes that community sentences make a person take responsibility, make amends for what they have done, and change to live a law-abiding life in the community. Prison is a relatively ineffective way of reducing crime. Our current high prison population is untenable. Prisons do little to help people make amends for what they have done and change lives. The Howard League campaigns on behalf of children in the penal system to improve their treatment and conditions and make sure they are released from prison safely with appropriate support wherever possible.

Secure children’s homes provide the highest standards of care and rehabilitation for the few children in trouble with the law who have to be detained in custody. Higher standards of care and rehabilitation reduce rates of recidivism, which in turns saves money for the Youth Justice Board. The Audit Commission estimate that preventing just 1 in 10 children from offending would save over £100m per year. What better financial argument is there for long-term efficacy than that?

Faced with a choice between a system of incarceration that does not produce any measurable success, and one that does, the Youth Justice Board cannot maintain the current programme of closing Secure Children’s Homes in favour of the more economically viable, but relatively ineffective, Secure Training Centres and Young Offender’s Institutes.

The Howard League screened a film about Secure Children Homes in the House of Commons  on January 8th. The film was produced by Spectacle, working with the young people in one such home. The Commons screening was for decision makers and cabinet ministers to coincide with the release of the Youth Justice Board’s secure estate strategy. The film was made with young people in secure children’s homes and the screening was sponsored by Ian Swales MP.

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