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  • Writer's pictureClare Jerrom

Urgent Notification process for Cookham Wood after inspection finds reliance on solitary confinement

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

The Chief Inspector of Prisons has urged the Urgent Notification process to be introduced at HMYOI Cookham Wood following the inspectorate's unannounced inspection between 4-20 April 2023.

Inspectors found the solitary confinement of children had become normalised at the young offender institution (YOI) in Rochester, Kent, for boys and young men aged 15 to 18, with more than one quarter of children being completely segregated from the main population.

Most were locked in their cells for 23.5 hours a day with no meaningful human interaction. According to records, it was not unusual for this group of children to not come out of their cells for days on end.

Education and other interventions were rarely delivered. Two boys who needed protecting from their peers had been subjected to these conditions for more than 100 days.

The Urgent Notifications process was introduced in 2017 and occurs if inspectors are particularly concerned about outcomes for detainees.

The inspection of Cookham Wood also found a complete breakdown of behaviour management, which had resulted in the escalation of poor behaviour to the point where there was widespread weapon making and nearly a quarter of children reported feeling unsafe.

Staff revealed that they were reluctant to search thoroughly or challenge threatening or intimidating behaviour because they were not always supported by colleagues or managers.

In the complete absence of other measures, the prison relied on keeping boys apart or completely segregating them to maintain safety. 90% of children were subjected to ‘keep aparts’ at the time of inspection and staff were managing 583 individual conflicts in a population of 77.

The inspection also found:

  • Many staff did not have confidence in leaders and managers.

  • Evidence of the acceptance of low standards was widespread.

  • Inspectors witnessed examples of intimidating and threatening behaviour including insulting or pushing past staff going unaddressed.

  • Education, skills and work provision had declined and was inadequate in all areas.

There were significant staffing shortfalls in some areas at the establishment. The inspectorate was informed but we were told that 450 staff were currently employed at Cookham Wood, including 44 directly employed managers, of whom 24 were senior leaders.

"The fact that such rich resources were delivering this unacceptable service for 77 children indicated that much of it was currently wasted, underused or in need of reorganisation to improve outcomes at the site," said Charlie Taylor, chief inspector of prisons.

"We met many staff who cared about the children at Cookham Wood and wanted to deliver a good service to them, however they had lost hope that improvements were possible."

"There will need to be a concerted and urgent response by the Youth Custody Service and the leadership of the prison in order to make this institution a safe and decent place to hold children," concluded Charlie Taylor.

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