Locking up young people has never been popular. In fact, some have made it a career objective to do away with it altogether.

I totally get that. In principle.

The problem with principles is that they don’t always work well with individuals.And we work with individuals.

I want to put forward some thoughts on why we shouldn’t write-off secure care completely.

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Why locking up can work, for some…

The following piece applies to both young people incarcerated by the Youth Court (criminal) and those held on Secure Accommodation Orders for their own safety (welfare).

In my early career, I wrote many Court reports making arguments to persuade magistrates and judges to use community alternatives. For most kids, I stand by that practice. Because most kids who offend don’t benefit from custodial sentences.

The evidence is clear that short custodial sentences don’t really work. Prison governors are almost unanimous in this view.

No sooner has a young person arrived in custody, than their mind turns towards leaving. And their rehabilitation is compromised from the off, because they don’t benefit from the opportunities afforded in secure.

Things like:

– Psychological distance from negative peers and old behaviour habits can’t be consolidated.

– Awareness of the consequences of their offending doesn’t fully take root.

– Trusting relationships with staff have no time to be established.

– Treatment interventions can’t really get going.

So that’s the bad news. And, in a nutshell, it’s why we should do away with short custodial terms for young offenders.

But there is some good news. And it has to do with why secure care can be a good thing…

The ‘good’ in secure care…

– Safety. Stability. Consistency. Predictability. These are the essential ingredients of good parenting. Something these young people have rarely experienced.
For some, the extent of the damage they’ve sustained during their early years is profound. So profound that community options just can’t provide these essentials.
Let me unpick these a little…

– Safety – In secure care, safety is about as absolute as it’s possible to get. For kids who’ve been largely boundariless and unfettered, this is the start of recovery. If we don’t feel safe, nothing else really matters. You don’t relax. You can’t invest in anything. You don’t really care about the future. And, perhaps most importantly of all, you don’t care about others – why would you when you don’t feel safe yourself?.

– Stability – One of the the most obvious features of being in a secure setting is the stability of it. It’s solid. It stands alone and feels immovable. One thing is sure: no-one is leaving. You can’t run away. No-one unwelcome can get in. Even family members – unsafe ones at least. For kids who’ve grown up looking for the next shock, the next threat, this is tremendously reassuring.

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– Consistency – Consistency from staff, from teachers, means children start to stand down from alert. They no longer need to be hypervigilant.  The rules of behaviour, of engagement, are laid out and clear for all – staff included. Children know exactly where they stand, what will happen, at what time and on what day. This is essential for those whose lives have been characterised by uncertainty.

– Predictability – is the result of all these factors. If you are safe and you know things won’t change in a fickle way, and you know the routine, you can predict your life’s experiences. This is the real gain for the most damaged young people. It means they can begin to invest in therapy. They can put their trust in staff. And, most of all, they can start to deal with the reasons they ended up in trouble in the first place.

These are things most of us take for granted. It’s easy to forget that for many they are an unknown phenomenon – something they’ve rarely or never experienced.

What I loved most about working in a secure children’s home, was seeing teenagers start to behave like children again. Gone is the hardened exterior. Gone is the combative persona necessary for survival “on the out.”

And the child emerges again – lovely!

Not for the majority…

Yes, foster care works for some, may be for most? Children’s homes and other community-based interventions have their place. Indeed they are well proven as being warranted for the majority of troubled teenagers.

For some, however, they just don’t work. The serial failures and placement moves only serve to make the problems worse. Kids who’ve grown up with instability, continue to experience it. This merely compounds the problems.

For these kids we have to face the fact that they need their lives to be stopped. They need to be made safe, kept safe and taught what it feels like to be safe.

Once that’s in place, they can be cared for and treated.

For this group of children with highly complex needs, secure care is the only setting where this can be achieved in anything like a realistic timespan.

Final thoughts…

We don’t need to put most young people in secure care. But for some it’s the only way to make a start on turning things around. Whether they be offenders or children on Secure Accommodation Orders.

So maybe it’s time to stop talking down what being locked up can achieve? It’s not about keeping them locked in. It’s about keeping the lives that damaged them if the first place, locked out to give them time to begin their recovery!

For a while at least…

‘Secure is about locking the old life out, so the child can be set free!’ – Jonny Matthew

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What do you think?…

– What are your thoughts on secure care?

– Do you agree or disagree with the thoughts in this post – please comment below?

Please contribute to this discussion by adding your own thoughts and experiences. You can  leave a comment by scrolling down, or just click here.

Related previous posts…

– Better justice for young people who offend…

– Crime & punishment – why punishment isn’t enough..

– Crime & punishment 2 – cause & effect…

– Crime & Punishment 3 – “Give a Damn”…

– Imprisonment in Wales – A Factfile…

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 © Jonny Matthew 2013

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