Children in custody – a grim picture of violence and self-harm

Work with offenders looks at a troubling new report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons

Children’s experiences in custody in 2019-20 disclosed a “grim” picture of violence and self-harm and long periods locked in their cells, according to Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons talking about today’s new report: “Children in Custody 2019-20: An analysis of 12–18-year-olds’ perceptions of their experiences in secure training centres and young offender institutions”.

The report is based on the findings from 613 questionnaires completed by children detained at three secure training centres (STCs) and five young offender institutions (YOIs), plus a separate specialised unit at one site, between 2 April 2019 and 9 March 2020. The establishments are designed to hold children aged from 12-18, though the large majority of those surveyed were 15-17 and 97% were boys.

The report shows that while the number of children in custody in England and Wales has been falling steadily (to 815 in March 2020), experiences of their everyday lives continue to be disturbing.

Mr Taylor said the findings for children’s self-reported experiences in 2019-20, which cover inspection surveys in the year to April 2020, “describe the grim reality of life in custody and mirrors closely our own [inspection] findings, in which none of the STCs were good enough, and violence and self-harm in YOIs remained at or near an all-time high. Only one institution we inspected in 2019–20 was sufficiently safe.”

This situation is all the more worrying because the report refers to conditions before the lockdown imposed to contain coronavirus.

Findings

Children’s perceptions of their day-to-day life were particularly concerning. Most did not feel cared for by staff and many spent long hours locked up in their cells, particularly at the weekend. Less than half reported being able to sleep easily, and even fewer felt they were getting enough food. In YOIs, only 68% were able to shower every day. There continued to be limits on time spent outside, with most children unable to play sport even once a week. Children’s perceptions of the support they had received to become rehabilitated were poor, with only 49% of children saying they had learnt something that would help them on release. Only just over half the children surveyed said that their experiences in custody had made them less likely to offend in the future.

The inspectors highlight the problem of youth violence, with many children surveyed feeling unsafe at some stage during their incarceration. Forty-four per cent said they had been bullied or victimised by other children, and the same proportion reported they had been bullied or victimised by staff. Children often felt that behaviour management systems were not effective and a higher proportion of children than in 2018–19 described being separated from their peers.

Inspectors complained that the use of restraint remains much too high in youth custody. In many of the questions asked by inspectors, the feedback from black and minority ethnic children, who made up more than 50% of the population, painted a worse picture than their white peers. These children were more likely to say they had been restrained and were less likely to say they were cared for in custody or were well treated by staff. Half of all children who responded had been in local authority care and these children were more likely to report health problems or a disability. Children from a Gypsy, Roma and Traveller background are the most disproportionately represented group, making up nearly 10% of the youth estate despite being a tiny proportion of the overall population of England and Wales.

Conclusion

This is a forthright report from the new Chief Prison Inspector, Charlie Taylor, who only took over from Peter Clarke in November last year. He sets out clear expectations for the year ahead:

“Without further reductions in violence and restraint, and a greater focus on education and resettlement, the Youth Custody Service will continue to struggle to provide adequately for the children in its care.”