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Teens under lock and key

by
06 August 2008

The Revd Yvonne Yates is Chaplain at Oakhill Secure Training Centre for teenagers. She talks to Rebecca Paveley about her ministry

Alternatives to prison: above: headlines in the Liverpool Echo announce the release of James Bulger’s killers PA

Alternatives to prison: above: headlines in the Liverpool Echo announce the release of James Bulger’s killers PA

FROM THE outside, Oakhill has been described as a bland-looking hotel, albeit one with rather extreme security. Inside, Oakhill is anything but: welcome to one of four Secure Training Centres in the UK for Britain’s youngest serious criminals.

Britain has among the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the EU. In England and Wales, it is ten: in Scotland, it is eight (the lowest age in Europe).

There is disagreement about the issue of custody for such young children, but the horrific character of some juvenile crimes — the murder of the toddler James Bulger by two ten-year-olds, for example — mean that many people believe that “child prisons” are necessary.

The latest figures show that about 3000 children and young people were in custody, or other secure accommodation, at any one time last year.

Oakhill is an 80-bed unit in Milton Keynes for boys and girls aged 12 to 17. The centre opened its doors only in 2004, but has already had troubled times, including a highly critical report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

The Revd Yvonne Yates is the Chaplain. It is not a ministry she says she intended to enter, having been trained in a rural parish in North Yorkshire. It is, however, one that she says she now loves. “It’s the possibility I might make a difference that keeps me going,” she says. “I am now doing the job for which I was ordained. I’m not snowed under with paperwork or worrying about the chancel roof.”

All young offenders at Oakhill have been sentenced by the courts, or are on remand. In particular, it is a custodial centre for those who have committed a serious crime, or for persistent young criminals who have already had one or more community-service orders.

Most of the current 44 inmates at Oakhill are at the older end of the spectrum, from ages 14 to 17. Sentences range from a minimum of four months to years, sometimes, for more serious offences.

Some children serve out their entire sentence at Oakhill. Others, at 17, go on to a Young Offenders Institution, a very different kind of custodial home. Secure training centres are smaller, and education is compulsory. YOIs, as they are known, are more like adult prisons.

PRISONS of any kind inevitably cause controversy, and the four STCs have attracted plenty of that. Oakhill is run by a private company, G4S Justice Services, and the centre has been criticised by OFSTED and the Chief Inspector of Prisons for failings, including the use of excessive force during restraint of children. The contractors have been warned to meet higher standards or face a large fine, and the number of places has been halved, temporarily.

Surprisingly, perhaps, thanks to a media saturated by stories of gun- and knife-wielding teenage boys, Oakhill contains roughly the same number of boys as of girls.

Paradoxically, it offers some of its inmates the first stability and sense of community they have had in years, Mrs Yates says. Each inmate lives in a “house” of about eight people, in an attempt to replicate some kind of family structure.

“I see them first and foremost as children, and I try and help them understand that for a time this is their community. We try and foster the sense of belonging somewhere. Sometimes, the children are being removed from circumstances that do not help. And removing them from a chaotic background, from addiction perhaps, can give them space to allow them to change.

“These children have committed a terrible crime, in some cases, and need to be removed from society. But the next question is: what do we do with them? My view is not to punish them further, but to help them build a better future.”

The community is the key, she suggests. “We are created to live in community, and with that come responsibilities. As human beings, we need to care about each other, and particularly the most vulnerable members of our society — the very young, the elderly, the disabled, the marginalised. The caring begins at home, within the family. It is about love, respect, values, and support.

The community is the key, she suggests. “We are created to live in community, and with that come responsibilities. As human beings, we need to care about each other, and particularly the most vulnerable members of our society — the very young, the elderly, the disabled, the marginalised. The caring begins at home, within the family. It is about love, respect, values, and support.

“All children need to be loved, to feel loved, to be valued and to feel they belong. Without that, children suffer, and do not understand their place in the world. We need to remember children are not mini-adults: they require a lot of time and energy devoted to them to help them develop properly.

“Many of the youngsters who are sent here by the courts have very low self-esteem: they do not feel valued, and they often have a very distorted view of family life. They feel let down by adults. They may have witnessed domestic violence, or drug or alcohol abuse, or been victims themselves of abuse, and this undoubtedly affects their development and how they cope in today’s world.

“Children learn by example. If they feel no one cares about them, we can hardly expect them to care about anything themselves.”

AS A SOCIETY, Mrs Yates says, “we need to find ways to help parents who struggle to be good role-models, churches to reach out into the community as a support mechanism for families who want help, the voluntary sector to be involved in community projects and schools — each one of us has a part to play in nurturing our children and young people so that they feel valued, that they belong, and have a part to play in their own communities.

“I don’t have answers. I simply feel strongly about offering positive role-models, mentors, and community cohesiveness as a way forward.”

I ask how she feels at seeing such young children behind bars. Although she quickly dismisses the notion that there are bars in the rooms at Oakhill, she is ambivalent about a criminal justice system that locks children away so early.

“I went to a conference a while ago where a highly respected judge said that crime under the age of 15 is a development issue rather than criminality. I agree with him. A lot of these children are victims: they come from chaotic backgrounds and do not have a sense of where they fit in.”

But Mrs Yates also believes that society — not just the children’s individual families — is failing them. Horrified by juvenile crime, communities give the knee-jerk reaction of shutting the offender away, without examining the wider community’s responsibility for the child.

But Mrs Yates also believes that society — not just the children’s individual families — is failing them. Horrified by juvenile crime, communities give the knee-jerk reaction of shutting the offender away, without examining the wider community’s responsibility for the child.

“I see much more now what needs to be done in the community. Working here has highlighted a society that, on the one hand, wants these children locked away — and I understand that, but these children need a lot of support — and a society that should care about how these children got to this point.”

Mrs Yates finds the low age of criminal responsibility “difficult to understand in the context of a society that says you cannot smoke, buy alcohol, vote, or get married until your teenage years”.

But sentencing a child to a period of custody, she says, “can sometimes offer the opportunity to work therapeutically with the child, and removes a child from whatever negative circumstances may be influencing their behaviour. But that can only be effective for serious crime, I think. Short periods of custody, statistics show, have proved to be relatively ineffective.”

She believes that for the time inmates are inside, Oakhill can provide a sense of belonging, although it is up to the child whether to try and turn his or her life around. Some manage it. Some of the “success stories” keep in touch, she says.

WHILE NO ONE wants to see any child in custody, she accepts that there are times when it is essential. Her task then is to try to help the child look forward to the future. “They are at a very impressionable age, which means they are impressionable in a positive way, too.”

As Chaplain, Mrs Yates works closely with other staff at the centre in planning the education and pastoral care of each inmate. Several young people have sat GCSEs this summer, and Mrs Yates teaches RE. She also attends the monthly review meetings with families, monitoring each child’s progress.

“I’m available for the children, whenever there is a crisis, at whatever time they need me. I am there for pastoral care. I try to build up a relationship with a child, who may come from any faith or none. I am responsible for their spiritual and emotional well-being while they are here. A lot of my work is listening.”

Mrs Yates is the only chaplain at the centre. But she is trying to build up a network of voluntary chaplains to help serve the 44 children there.

Most inmates at Oakhill come from a no-faith or very loosely Christian background. A few are from other faiths, but there is a lot of interest in the services offered in the chapel. Of the inmates with no church background, some confess that they have never even seen a clerical collar before, and have no idea what it is, or what a cleric does.

“I offer an act of worship in the same way that a church would offer a family-type service. It’s a fairly informal service, but I want them to get used to making a confession and receiving absolution. I make it interactive, but quite short, too; some of the children have short attention spans.

“I want it to be an early approach to Christianity. They come to the service from curiosity, just to see what is on offer.

“A lot of these children feel no one cares for them. My role is to help them understand that they have done something awful, but that doesn’t stop God loving them. That is an incredibly important message to these children, because society says, ‘We want you out.’”

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