Ministry of Justice acts on violence in youth custody

Work with Offenders looks at two new reports which aim to reduce conflict in young offenders institutions

Yesterday the Ministry of Justice published two key reports into violence in youth custody.

Pain-inducing techniques

The first report, undertaken by Charlie Taylor – the man responsible for the most recent (2016) major review into the justice system who argued for a network of secure schools to replace the current secure estate – reviewed the use of pain-inducing restraint techniques.

The review confirmed the concerns held by many about the capacity and capability of the youth secure estate to be able to manage, care for and educate the children in its care. There is an unacceptable level of violence in Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres meaning that both staff and children are under a high degree of stress. This feeds the cycle in which children, who may already have a tendency towards violence, become more violent leading to greater levels of stress and hypervigilance that create the wrong environment for children to change and flourish.

Many of the children have led traumatic lives and have been subjected to abuse – around 39% have been in the care system and a high percentage have themselves been victims of crime.

This is compounded by putting them in, what can be, a frightening and dangerous environment in which they can find themselves assaulted by their peers and physically restrained. This is made worse when adults deliberately inflict pain in circumstances in which it cannot be justified.

The inexperience of prison staff and leadership of variable quality means that there is an overreliance on restraint to maintain a semblance of order. The certainties of restraint and the short term sense of control takes precedence over the use of more complex, relational, therapeutic and behaviour management techniques and skills that require constant reinforcement, strong leadership and professional judgement.

Mr Taylor says that he witnessed (often by watching video recordings) many examples of the use of pain-inducing techniques in situations in which, by any reasonable measure, though unpleasant, there was no risk of “serious harm” to the members of staff or children who were involved, such as children refusing to give up their hands to be handcuffed or pulling an officer’s hair.

He argues that urgent action must be taken to address the situation in Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres to begin to reduce the amount of violence, time spent locked in cells and lack of access to meaningful activity.

He reluctantly concludes that there remains a need for pain-inducing techniques in situations, for example, to ensure that a child releases a weapon or a choke or strangle hold on another person to prevent serious physical harm. However, he says that these techniques must be used much less often and that there should be nothing normal or routine about the use of force which breaks down trust, damages further already-damaged children and changes the relationship between staff members and the children in their care.

The solitary confinement of children

The second report is from a taskforce advised by Sir Alan Wood of the Youth Justice Board which looked into the use of separation (the term for solitary confinement for children in custody) and the effect it has on a child’s development.

Separation is when young offenders are placed in a different part of the establishment and do not mix with other children. This typically happens if they have been behaving violently or there is a risk of them hurting another child or being hurt themselves.

The report found that that children who are “separated” are often badly failed, denied many basics such as access to hygiene, human contact as well as specialist support.

The report emphasises that when children are separated because they are in crisis or are experiencing difficulties, they should be receiving an intensive and enhanced multi-professional support rather than being effectively abandoned.

Frustratingly, the report finds pockets of impressive practice in amongst many examples of persistent failure. It recommends that the Youth Custody Service focuses on three areas that have been shown to be failing: the purpose of separation; leadership across YOIs and in the centre; and a sharp focus on practice.

Underlying all the technical recommendations, there is a clear need for a culture change which puts children first within our secure estate.