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The justice system is failing young offenders  

23 August 2019

A new approach is offered by ‘Secure Schools’ — but they present significant challenges, says Anne Bennett

FELTHAM Young Offenders Institution (YOI) is unsafe. The YOI, one of four in England and Wales, has been told by the Inspector of Prisons that it must not accept any new placements until “decisive action” has been taken. There is nothing new in this: Feltham has consistently been found to be inadequate and unsafe.

The dry prose of inspection reports understates reality. We read that levels of self-harm have trebled in six months, assaults on staff are up, and incidents of violence are through the roof. As a YOI chaplain, I saw this every day: young people punched brick walls until the room was spattered with blood, or stabbed themselves with pencils. Staff were viciously attacked. A nurse was punched and lost an eye. A teacher’s jaw was broken. An officer was pushed downstairs. Young people fought all the time. I remember a child lying motionless in a pool of blood, felled by a single shattering punch, as a white-faced nurse shouted for oxygen.

Young people’s anger and despair is expressed as violence against themselves, against each other, and against those who care for them. YOIs deal with this by keeping the children locked up, and, at Feltham, children leave their cells, on average, for only 4.2 hours a day, which disrupts their well-being, health care, and education. The inspectors report at Feltham that a child received his anti-epilepsy medication six hours late, which is horrifying when we remember that 16-year-old Daniel Adewole died of epilepsy in Cookham Wood in 2016.

THE justice system is not healing, rehabilitating, or educating these children. After five years working in a YOI, I felt that there was no solution other than a total overhaul of the system. I am not alone. The Howard League for Penal Reform has been calling for the closure of YOIs for years. A better solution is Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs): small units that hold children near their homes and families. SCHs are, however, nearly three times more expensive to run than YOIs.

The Government has a new proposal for youth custody. The “Secure School” is the brainchild of the behaviour expert Charlie Taylor, and is designed as a combined academy and SCH. Oasis Charitable Trust will run the first Secure School on the old Medway Secure Training Centre site, next door to Cookham Wood YOI. The founder of Oasis, the Revd Steve Chalke, envisages a “challenging and redemptive environment”.

The move towards the SCH model is positive, and it is good to see that the Secure School will not be a profit-making enterprise. Secure Schools will focus on mentoring, education, and holistic care, and they will not be allowed to use painful restraint techniques on children.

The Oasis Secure School, however, will have a capacity of 64 — much higher than a children’s home — and will have a lower budget per child. When there are only 900 children in custody, and the impact on society is so serious, it is depressing that this area is constantly squeezed for cash. More small Secure Children’s Homes could have been a better option, with mental health, education, and other specialists covering more than one home.

CAN Oasis, which has a record of some success in troubled secondary schools, deliver hope for these children? The challenge is huge. Gang culture and bullying dominate their lives, and violence is their language. Oasis is being asked to take on children who have serious mental-health issues, special educational needs, and histories of neglect, abuse, and traumatic bereavement; and they have committed awful crimes. Most worryingly, there are plans to place girls in secure schools.

Girls in custody, who are often victims of sexual abuse and violence, should not be held alongside male sex-offenders. Even if they are physically safe, juvenile establishments are rife with verbal abuse, including sexual language and gender-specific invective. It is appalling that only two paragraphs of the Taylor report refer to the specific needs of girls, who are always an afterthought in the justice system.

Oasis faces the dilemma whether to take experienced prison staff, who will bring the old custodial culture with them, or whether to train teachers and nurses to run a high-security institution. It will not be easy to find the right staff to deal with these offenders, who are both children and dangerous criminals who steal, injure, and kill. If anyone can make this work, it will be Oasis, who do have a genuine belief in the power of the individual to change.

Changing the institution alone will not help these children. I have met children who have lived rough, who have lived in hostels infested with rats, who have been taken in by “kind neighbours” who turned out to be drug-dealers. If these children are to turn their lives around, we must work on the underlying issues of homelessness, gang culture, drugs, racism, poverty, and exclusion.

I do wonder whether this time Steve Chalke has taken on too big a challenge. I pray with all my heart that he has not.

The Revd Anne Bennett is the Team Vicar in the Ravensbourne Team Ministry, in south London.

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