The pressure for secure schools

Work with offenders on a new report from the Justice Committee

A new report from the House of Commons select Committee for Justice published last week called on the government to honour its pledge to create secure schools for children in custody as a more modern and appropriate replacement for Youth Offender Institutions.

The Committee’s report, Children and Young People in Custody (Part 2): The Youth Secure Estate and Resettlement, cites a 2016 review of the youth justice system by Charlie Taylor, the then-Chair of the Youth Justice Board (and current Chief Inspector of Prisons) , which called on the government to “change the entire way it thinks about youth custody” through the creation of the ‘secure schools’ concept. The review said:

“Rather than seeking to import education into youth prisons, schools must be created for detained children which bring together other essential services, and which are then overlaid with the necessary security arrangements”.

The Committee report said the Government agreed with this and had committed to establishing ‘secure schools’. The Committee recommended that the Ministry of Justice “publish a timetable setting out how, where and when it plans to replace [current provision] with secure schools” and to “guarantee that the first school will open as now planned in 2022”.

The recommendation for the Government to “get on with” establishing secure schools was just one focus of the Committee report.

Fewer children in custody but…

The Justice Committee acknowledged that reducing the number of young people and children in the criminal justice system, especially in custody, has been one of the significant success stories of the past decade. They did, however, draw attention to the fact that the success in diverting many young offenders away from formal justice processes leaves those who remain within the system both more complex and more demanding, not least because those children and young people have mainly committed very serious offences. The life chances of those who would once have faced custody and are now dealt with by other means have significantly improved. Simultaneously, those who remain within the system pose substantial challenges for the staff who look after them, for a system that seeks to rehabilitate offenders into society, and for that wider society as a whole. The report says that it is imperative that as many children in custody as possible are enabled to successfully reintegrate into the community when they leave custody. The Committee says that the youth custody system is still not doing as good a job as it should in providing meaningful education and training, work-based opportunities, suitable accommodation when they leave custody and the maintenance of connections with families and friends. It acknowledges that it will be a significant challenge to improve these core functions in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

Child safety in custody

The Justice Committee highlighted a number of concerns about the safety of children in custody. These included the complete breakdown of child safety and control at HMYOI Feltham in 2019 which resulted in the Chief Inspector of Prisons issuing the first ever Urgent Notification for a child prison – an Urgent Notification places a statutory duty on the Justice Secretary to make immediate improvements to a failing custodial institution. Another area of serious concern was the continued escalation of violence in youth custody and, in particular, year-on-year increases in the number of times when staff physically restrain the children in their care. The issue of “restrictive physical interventions” in the secure estate is particularly troubling because the number of restraints has gone up every year despite the number of children in custody decreasing steadily.

The Government is required to respond to select Committee reports and we must wait and see to find out whether the Ministry of Justice will provide the guarantee demanded by the Committee – that the first secure school will open next year.