In prison a long way from home…

What are the effects on children in custody?

The HM Inspectorate of Prisons has published it’s report into the impact on children in custody who are imprisoned away from their home area.


What are the findings and recommendations?…

The thematic inspection was commissioned by the Youth Justice Board.

The dramatic fall in the numbers of children held in custody in recent years has meant a reduction in the number of custodial places that can house them.

As an inevitable consequence of this, more children are placed at distance from home than would have been the case previously.

This report sought to answer the question: “How has being placed away from home affected these young people?

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Further away = fewer family visits…

It’s no surprise then that being placed a long way from home impacts on the contact between children and their families.

One child was placed 187 miles away from home and had not received a visit for 4 months. Whilst this was not a typical case, it illustrates a key fact…

“Every 25-mile interval a child was held away from home resulted in one less visit from a family member or friend.” (p.7)

Both the young people themselves and the professionals working with them noted the problems caused by distance.

The importance of this was highlighted in a 2014 report which identified an adult offender’s family as the most effective resettlement agency.

Surely the same must be the case for children? If not more so.

The UN is very clear on this issue in its rules for the protection of juveniles deprived of their liberty…

“…detention facilities for juveniles should be decentralised and of such size as to facilitate access and contact between the juveniles and their families.”

As I have said elsewhere, the obvious antidote to this is to have more, smaller units placed around the country – a clear failing of the current system.

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Further away = fewer professional visits…

There is a similar negative impact on professional involvement when a child is imprisoned a long way away – one less visit for every 26-mile interval of distance. About this the report says…

‘Professional visitors provide support to address substance misuse and offending behaviour, and put in place plans for employment, training or education post release, all of which can significantly contribute to preventing reoffending.’ (p.7)

YOT staff visits were not affected as far as attendance at formal reviews was concerned. But other community-based professional visits suffered as a result of distance.

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Nigel Spooner

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Nigel Spooner

This is crucial, as often it is not the YOT case manager who has the closest relationship with the child. The role of such relationships on helping support stability on release should not be underestimated.

Maintaining them whilst in custody is therefore, in my view,  a key contributor to successful resettlement.


So what did the report recommend by way of mitigating the impact of distance on children in custody?

  • Flexibility & creativity – “More imaginative solutions and flexibility should be used to mitigate the current lack of visits for children whose family find it hard to visit, whether due to distance or other factors.”
  • More telephone calls – “Children should be provided with additional phone calls to a parent/carer in place of unused visit entitlements.”
  • Better use of technology – “There should be greater use of new technologies to enable children in custody to have the levels of contact they need with external professionals who will be working with them post release, and to enable relevant ‘through the gate’ work to commence while in custody. (e.g. YJB Cymru has recently trialled the use of Skype as a way of helping young people maintain contact with family members.)
  • Information for young people in court – “Age appropriate information should be available in all courts so children who are committed to custody can know before they leave the court where in England or Wales they are going, where this is in relation to their home and what the YOI/STC offers.”
  • Proactive pastoral support – “Children should routinely be given the opportunity to discuss how they feel about their distance from home and how any negative impacts they are experiencing can be mitigated.”
  • More & regular research – “Available data should be used on a regular basis to determine any negative impacts on children who are placed far from home, particularly in relation to recall and reoffending, and to identify any emerging patterns or trends.”
  • Reduced travel to court – “There should be increased use of video-enabled court hearings, when appropriate, while ensuring there are no adverse consequences for the child or criminal justice procedures. Safeguards should ensure that the child is able to appropriately consult with their solicitor prior to their hearing.”

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Final word…

The imprisonment of children is always going to be a hot potato. My feeling after reading this report was two-fold:

  • Despite these obvious problems, there’s some good work being done in custody to deal with children equitably and fairly.

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/AlexRaths (adapted)

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/AlexRaths (adapted)

  • But we’ve a way to go yet to achieve a child-centred custodial system which does everything it can to further the cause of effective rehabilitation.

For some more detailed thoughts on how the current custodial estate may be made more effective for children and the public, see my blog post called: Children’s Prisons: A Manifesto.


What do you think?…

  • What do you think about the way our current system works? What would you do to make it better?
  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2016


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