Does the Westminster government want to improve youth custody, or not?

Justice minister Chris Grayling today announced his Green Paper, Transforming Youth Custody: Putting Education at the Heart of Detention. He says young offenders should receive better education and training to turn their backs on crime. Welcome words, but does the government have the political will to deliver the radical transformation that is urgently needed? 

The publication today of the Green Paper Transforming Youth Custody: Putting Education at the Heart of Detention is welcome and the philosophy of giving effective education and training to young offenders is long overdue. My experiences whilst England’s first Children’s Commissioner between 2005-10, with the unique statutory power to visit all three types of the current secure estate, have given me some sense of the size of the mountain to climb. Our government could learn from good practice in Canada and in Spain.

As Children’s Commissioner I listened to Adam (not his real name), a 16-year-old in his cell in a UK Government-run Youth Offender Institution (YOI). He told me he had been transported from court to prison in a ‘sweat box’ – a steel-lockered van – carrying adults as well as children; he sat for many hours on a hard metal bench, his knees touching the wall in front; seat belts were not provided for risk of self harm, he had nothing to do, was unable to see out of the tiny window, and because the van was not allowed to stop, he had to pee and defecate on the floor. Others in the van vomited through travel sickness.

Because adults’ journey times from court to prison were subject to government targets, but children’s journey times were not, adults were the first to be dropped off. So children like Adam endured long journeys before reaching their destinations, often late at night when the regular staff responsible for induction were not on duty. Adam described his humiliation at being strip-searched in front of several prison officers.

At Adam’s YOI I saw an unkempt poorly maintained estate, with no effort to humanize its appearance or atmosphere. Adam slept with his head three feet away from an open, filthy, stinking lavatory; he had not been allowed any cleaning materials. His meagre personal belongings were in a black bin bag under his bed; the paintwork of his cell was stained and peeling. He had no access to fresh air through the secured window. He was given one towel per week to dry himself and his eating utensils. His lunch (which I saw) consisted of a dry half-baguette cheese sandwich, a bag of crisps and an apple. He had nothing more to eat until 7pm. He spent hours locked in his cell, told me he had no personalized education plan, made no complaints for perceived fear of being victimized by prison officers, and claimed to be subjected to unwarranted and painful restraint from staff who, I discovered, were not specialist in the management of disturbed young people. Is it any wonder that he ‘kicked off’ in rage and frustration?

In contrast to these inhuman conditions in a YOI, I saw a very different ethos on a visit to Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre.  I asked to be treated like a new inmate. I was transported not in a ‘sweat box’, but in a people carrier sitting between two female officers trained in managing children in transit. Comfort stops were arranged at secure police stations en route; nutritious food was provided and arrival always timed to ensure that induction took place humanely with respectful strip-searching and time to allow the child to adapt. The staff ate with the children in a tranquil environment with good quality nutritious food appropriate to a healthy young appetite, and serious education was relentlessly promoted.

Both the Centre and its College were inspected by Ofsted to its exacting standards and both were graded as 'Outstanding'. I commended those achievements.

Similarly, in a local authority secure children's home I saw further examples of excellent care. The outstanding staff were trained from a background of care for children and were motivated and dedicated, doing their best often under high levels of overload to work with young offenders, many of whom were violent and dangerous.

These vignettes show that there is no consistency across the secure estate on attitudes, culture, training and practices and searching questions must be asked on why is there such a stark lack of consistency. How will the Green Paper address this fundamental problem?

In the past year I have visited Canada and Spain to see for myself how young offenders are managed there and have seen philosophies, practices and outcomes that are far different to those of England.

In Canada, half of all the secure estate for youngsters was closed as a result of the Young Offenders Act of 2003 (updated in 2012 as the Youth Criminal Justice Act) that was driven through the Federal Parliament with cross party support. Its key principles comprise prevention, early identification of offenders, police flexibility in recording offences, and keeping children out of criminal courts for minor offences. Restorative justice is heavily promoted with the perpetrator being confronted by the victim, with individualized community rehabilitation policies that are seen to be real punishments but coupled with re-integration. The whole philosophy is grounded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I visited a secure establishment in Nova Scotia where the contrast between its ethos and environment to those YOIs I visited in England could not be starker. Prison officers had been replaced by non-uniformed graduate children’s workers who were specialists in the care of troubled young people; those I spoke to in the secure ‘facility’ (not a ‘prison’) were convinced that only those children who were a serious danger to themselves or to others should be locked away; but even they were not denied hope.

Canadian police officers I spoke to, such as the senior Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer in charge of Nova Scotia’s police, were incredulous that what they had seen in England went unchallenged; they were resolute in making sure that our practices were not copied, and the federal and provincial politicians I spoke to were persuaded that their approach was working.

More recently I visited young offender institutions run by the Diagrama Foundation in Alicante and Castellón in Spain, and have seen the ‘promised land’ for young offenders! A DVD documenting the three days of the visit is to be found on here.

These Spanish youngsters have a less than 20 per cent re-offending rate (compared with 73 per cent in the UK). How has Spain achieved these results?

There are four strikingly better aspects of the management of youngsters there than in England namely, philosophy, staffing, ambience and expectation.

The philosophy, as in Canada, is based on the principles of re-education and re-integration into society. The institutions are small and based in local communities in which the children and their families live and in which training and employment prospects are found. The institutions are not called prisons or YOIs, they are called ‘Centres for Re-education’.

The staff working with the young people are called ‘Educators’, not prison officers. They are graduates, trained in the psychological management of disturbed youngsters and showing warmth, including close physical contact and comfort to their charges unseen in any English establishment. I was told that the staff liked and loved their young people, sharing meals, sport and outside activities with their mixed groups of boys and girls. I saw a thoroughly professional work force motivated to succeed for the best interests of the children, but coupled with the reality that the public needed to be protected and reassured that punishment was being delivered.

The well-ordered and scrupulously maintained premises created an ambience focused on education and training with much access to sport and physical activity despite the heat of the Spanish summer. The atmosphere was one of relaxed humour, but with purposeful and disciplined activity. There was none of the aggression and underlying tension seen daily in English YOIs.

Young people were offered incentives to progress through the ‘journey of care’. On arrival, their facilities and timetable were basic. Thereafter they could earn privileges such as the chance to go outside the unit on work placements. There was the expectation that all young people would be able to progress, this giving a real chance of hope in their lives.

The young men and women who were sentenced for the same range of offences as for those in England, including convictions for violent crime, told me repeatedly that they saw their sentence to the Unit and loss of liberty coupled with the expectation of hard work to be real punishments

I accompanied them on their work placement into the National Forest, where they were trained in land and forestry management and learned about the habitat. I saw others working as gardeners in the grounds of the local Court with some being given secretarial and retail experience.

There was an explicit sense of community, political and media pride in the establishments. It is hardly surprising that the re-offending rate is only 20 per cent, the majority of young people gaining some useful and purposeful training. Whether this outstanding record can be maintained in the current dire economic situation in Spain with its appalling youth unemployment remains to be seen.

I have to conclude that these countries are showing a progressive, realistic and above all successful approach to youth offending. Some aspects of the Spanish circumstance, such as the warmth shown to children in society and the absence of media demonization of youngsters offer a model to which we in the UK can aspire. There is much to be learned to our benefit by applying the principles I have seen so clearly implemented in practice.

The new consultation on the importance of education in the secure estate in England is welcome. However, mixed signals are being flown. Thus, there seems to be an interest in how to improve education in the youth secure estate, but on the other hand, there are demands not least from the right wing media to end the so-called ‘holiday-camp’ atmosphere and the denial of basic privileges in prisons.

The opportunity provided by the Green Paper needs to be seized. But there is much more to be done than outsourcing education to school academies or education providers. A root and branch review of the current mismatch of provision and culture between the three types of secure estate must be performed, alongside serious consideration being given to the lessons from Canada and Spain in creating small local centres for re-education, the development of a graduate work force of ‘educators’ and above media and political support in recognising that locking away young offenders in a brutal environment is not the answer to youth crime.

Is there really the political will at a time of severe financial constraint to ‘look out of the box’ and transform the outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged youngsters in the country?  

About the author

Professor Sir Al Aynsley-Green Kt. Former Director of Clinical R&D, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London, first National Clinical Director for Children, Department of Health, and first Children’s Commissioner for England.