“Do we really put children in prison?” I hear you cry!

Yep. All the time. Children. In prison. Think about that for a moment.

Why is this important?…

Because we are on the brink of a sea-change in the way this occurs. And in my view we desperately need a major re-think of penal policy. Particularly about how we deal with young people sent to prison.

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Number of kids in custody at a new low…

Recent news has heralded a new low in numbers of young people in custody. For the first time the number dipped below 1000 over the Christmas 2014 period.

That’s around 300 less than the same time last year, a huge improvement on the 3000 in prison in 2008.

Image courtesy of ©123rf/Roger Costa Morera

Image courtesy of ©123rf/Roger Costa Morera

Credit for this lies in a number of areas:

– Government and the YJB, particularly in Wales, have driven the service in this direction

– Sentencing guidelines discourage the use of custody for the young

– Good practice encourages the use of alternatives to custody wherever possible

– Prevention has become a key feature in the work of community youth justice services

-Youth Offending Teams work extremely hard to keep children out of prison

So far, so good. Any reduction in the number of children going to prison has to be a good thing.

In a bulletin to youth offending teams, YJB director of operations, Lucy Dawes, said that although the [reduced] figure, which is based on data supplied daily by custodial establishments, is unofficial, it represents a “significant landmark and a remarkable achievement.” See more here…

Obviously the recent fall in numbers calls this into question the need for the aforementioned super-prison. Rightly so.

But what about those who do go to prison?

Herein lies the rub.

If those who do end up inside are the most troublesome, we should structure the secure estate in such a way as to bring this number down further. Custody should be about rehabilitation with a regime modelled to achieve it.

I’ve written before about the specifics of this, but want to outline here the main areas that I think will require attention, if this is to be achieved:

– More prisons not fewer – hang on, before you hit delete and read something else, hear me out. Along with many other people I’m delighted the government ditched its plans to build a 300+ bed “secure college” for 12-17 year olds. The flaws in this plan were legion. But here are a few: economies of scale work for widgets, not for children; big isn’t beautiful and it certainly isn’t efficient; the institutions with the worst re-offending record for kids leaving custody are the big ones (YOIs), the ones with the best record are the smallest (secure children’s homes). Enough said. So build more…

Smaller units: ”These may be more expensive to run in the short term because they require a higher adult-to-child ratio but would be cost-effective if they help to keep young people out of trouble in the future.’ Children’s Commissioner for England – Unlocking Potential Report (Oct.’15)

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– Smaller prisons, not bigger – I ran the interventions in a unit for 22 children, 17 of whom were serving criminal sentences. I knew every kid by name and knew something of their story. I knew the staff working with them and the child’s key-worker only had one child to concentrate on. Yes, one. Is it any wonder that there was a lot of individualised, tailored and focussed work done with every child. Work that targeted not only their offences, but the causes of their offending. Here lies the key in reducing offending further, particularly among the most prolific kids.

Prison gates

Photo ©Jonny Matthew

– Local prisons not “hubs”  – remember that these are children. They need to be as close to home as possible. Being inside will break the links with undesirable people who may have contributed to the offending. But that doesn’t mean that we should undermine a child’s regional identity, increase his or her isolation and compound their anxiety by placing them a long way from home. I know from my own work experience that parents who visit – easier when it’s closer – can also engage with staff and begin to understand something of how to help their child stay out of trouble in future. As we all know, how these kids have been parented has a lot to do with it…

– Therapy not education – ludicrous comparisons of custodial costs and those of private schools are meaningless. Education is patently NOT the answer. Yes, it’s part of the mix, an essential part, but it’s certainly not the main thing. Education doesn’t fix undiagnosed mental health conditions; education doesn’t heal abusive memories; education doesn’t eradicate years of domestic violence or complex bereavements, or parental substance misuse. But therapy does. More importantly still, a therapeutic environment  or regime can begin the long process of ameliorating these historical drivers of offending.

So here’s my quick manifesto for a secure estate that works:

  1.  STOP…

– Building big prisons. Scrap the secure college idea – it won’t work to reduce offending. Divert the funding to more effective projects.

– Decommissioning beds in secure children’s homes – because they do work. The recidivism rates prove it. Put the money where the successes are.

– Centralising – keep kids local where parents and carers can remain in touch and be part of the process of change. Help kids retain their identity, too.

– Short sentences – because these don’t work either. Custody should be a last resort, but if a child needs to go to custody, make it meaningful and give them and the professionals involved a chance to make a difference. Work harder to keep them, but if they have to go down make it meaningful (more on this in a future post)

  2. START…

– Building more secure children’s home – or at least commissioning more beds. Re-assign funds from YOI bed closures to fund this. Divert the secure college money too.

– Localising custody – use the available data to match provision of smaller units near areas that need them. This will reduce isolation, increase engagement and allow parents/carers a continued role. It will also make for better resettlement success rates.

– Increase health provision – it’s time to grasp the nettle and really fund psychological support for young offenders. Proper clinical oversight of custodial care is key to rehabilitative success. What the secure estate really needs is regime change…

– Funding YOTs to do more prevention work – don’t be tempted to divert funds elsewhere because numbers coming through YOTs are low. Let’s keep them low. Especially those sentenced to custody. Focus efforts even more on prevention and early stage interventions – make these more intensive now in order to reduce re-offending later.

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Final thought…

No-one would argue that since 2008 money has been tight. Very tight. And custody is expensive. So, wherever we can, let’s continue with efforts to divert children from going there.

But for those who do, let’s give them the best chance of “going straight” post-release – place them in small units where the care they’ve lacked hitherto can be offered, where therapy can be provided and supported, where staff can work relationally and the causes of crime can be addressed effectively.

[callout]Penelope Gibbs, chair of the Standing Committee on Youth Justice, said: “It is fantastic news that custody numbers dipped below 1,000 over the Christmas period. This dip again casts doubt on the need for a secure college which will have over 300 beds. Let’s hope this low population will encourage the government to think again.” See more here.[/callout]

What do you think?…

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© Jonny Matthew 2015 (updated June 2018)

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