Deteriorating conditions in youth estate must be addressed
The significant increase in the number of over 18's being held in the children’s secure estate and the "deteriorating conditions" there need to urgently be addressed, 30 concerned organisations have warned.
The 30 organisations, including the Alliance for Youth Justice, the Howard League for Penal Reform, Centre for Mental Health and the Prison Reform Trust, have written to prisons' minister, Damian Hinds, to express "grave concerns regarding the children’s secure estate".
"While we have longstanding concerns about a system that is so often embroiled in crisis, alongside our wider call to end child imprisonment and respond to the underlying causes of children’s involvement in the justice system, a number of developments necessitate this letter: reports of scandalous treatment of children and young people in a number of Young Offender Institutions (YOIs); the proposed rollout of PAVA spray to the children’s secure estate; and the significant increase in the number of young people aged 18 or over being held in the children’s secure estate," said the letter.
The letter outlines the "potentially unlawful" treatment of children in the youth justice system including:
Prolonged periods of solitary confinement
Reports of incidents placing children at risk of harm
Inadequate regimes and needs not being met
General Purpose Dogs and harmful devices being deployed on young people in YOIs
"We are dismayed that rather than putting the time and resources into addressing the root causes of children and young people’s behaviour, policymakers are seriously considering arming custody staff with harmful irritant sprays to use on children," the letter continued.
The number of young people aged 18 or over in the children’s secure estate increased by 140% in the five months after Operation Safeguard was announced, to 132. This means that 22% of the youth custody population and an estimated 28% of YOIs, is made up of young people aged 18 or over, by far the greatest proportion of young adults held in the children’s estate since records began.
Yet, the concerned organisations highlight that "the children’s secure estate was already in crisis, struggling to cope with the children in its care". Since Operation Safeguard, the children’s secure estate has been rapidly overloaded and the treatment of children and young people has deteriorated.
"It is clear that the children’s secure estate cannot meet the needs of children and young people. It cannot cope with an increasing population, let alone while also grasping the different considerations needed for over 18s," the letter added.
The organisations which also include Article 39, Liberty and Unlock pose a number of questions to Damian Hinds, alongside calls for change.
Given the use of force in youth custody and use of PAVA spray in adult custody is racially disproportionate, it will highly likely be disproportionately used on Black and racially minoritised children and should not be rolled out in the children's secure estate.
The government should publish clear information about future plans for holding young people aged 18 and over in the children’s estate, including forecasts and targets, how long Operation Safeguard will be in place, and the assessment of its impact on children and young people in custody.
A national strategy and improvement plan for youth custody should urgently be produced.
"We have already seen five Urgent Notifications for the children’s secure estate in just four years. Without a clear strategy and urgent action, it is only a matter of time before the next," the letter concluded.
Kevin Campbell, Deputy Manager at Wipers Youth, said: "Unless the conditions in the youth custody estate drastically improve urgently, there will be a surge of very angry and hostile young people leaving custody, who have not had their needs met, and who will have received little intervention to prevent them from a path of re-offending."
"Incarcerated young people need to be treated with dignity and respect and they need to learn about positive change and the path they could choose rather than be caged for a significant period, potentially alone, and lacking the structure and education or training to make better life choices," he added.
The population of under 18s in young offender institutions, secure training centres and secure children’s homes remained at historic lows with an average of 438 children in custody throughout the year. This meant there was an improved staff to child ratios at all sites.