Our youth justice system's fatal flaw: it is harming children

Child suicides, staff assaults on children (often legally sanctioned). . . children are plainly not safe in the youth justice system of England and Wales.

Behind the veil of good news headlines being pumped out of the Ministry of Justice press office last week to accompany the annual statistics on the youth justice system, was a litany of figures revealing an increase in tragedy and harm inside children’s prisons.

We welcome the fact that the number of children entering the criminal justice system for the first time continues to fall, as does the number of children in prisons. All those involved in these achievements, should be proud and build on their successes to reduce the still unacceptably high rate of child imprisonment. There are still over 1,500 children incarcerated in England and Wales.

Within the government’s 90 page statistical release are details that reveal children’s prisons are failing in their most basic duty to keep the children in their care safe.

Three children took their own lives in prisons in 2011/12. These were the first deaths since 2007.

-       Ryan Clark, aged 17, died at Wetherby prison in Yorkshire

-       Jake Hardy, aged 17, died at Hindley prison near Wigan

-       Alex Kelly, aged 15, died at Cookham Wood prison in Kent

These boys were in prisons across the country. The only commonality that can be drawn at this stage is that they were in large young offender institutions that are generally not resourced to meet children’s needs. We are also in an era of unprecedented cuts, putting children, and staff, at risk.

Despite the drops of the numbers of children in custody, the recorded incidents of self-harm soared by 21 per cent. There were 1,725 recorded incidents of self-harm in custody during the year – 33 reports a week.

Children in custody were also subjected to an increase in the number of restraints, up to 8,419 times in the year – equating to 23 incidents a day. Restraint is a system of a series of techniques for placing children in physical restrictive holds, or subjecting them to “pain distraction techniques”, which involve the deliberate infliction of immediate pain on a child. In other words, it is a system of legally sanctioned ways for staff to assault children.

Too many children end up in prison after being the victims of abuse, bad parenting or mental health, drug or alcohol problems. These vulnerable children need our help to turn over a new leaf to prevent them being condemned to a life of crime. A prison sentence puts troubled children into a violent atmosphere that only worsens their problems and makes them more likely to commit crime on release.

We hope that the number of children detained in these failing and dangerous institutions continues to fall until all the prisons for children can be closed. For the very few who do require a period in a secure environment, small, local authority secure children’s homes are resourced to meet the underlying complex needs that these children often present with and have high ratios of well-trained staff to work with, but, most importantly, care for, these children.

It is high time we focused on investing in children’s futures. There is a wealth of research and information that shows what works in the youth justice system: early intervention; prevention; intensive community sentences with requirements such as multi-systemic therapy or intensive fostering – both proven to help children and reduce their likelihood of becoming the adult criminals of tomorrow. There is a simple statistic that shows what does not work – 72 per cent of children reoffend within a year of leaving prison.

The government is about to launch a consultation on the future of the secure estate for children. The aim to put education at the heart of custody is laudable in theory, underpinned by the long-term vision of giving children building blocks that they need for positive futures. But whilst they try to place these building blocks on the foundations of a system that cannot keep children safe, it will continue to be fundamentally flawed.

As one young person who was detained and worked with staff at the Howard League succinctly said:

‘Before I came into the justice system I didn’t really care about it. Now I’m in it some bits are ok, but most of it is disgraceful and people have no idea.’

Now is not the time for blame, now is the time for change. It is the time to acknowledge that children in trouble with the law are in need of care and support. Every child death and every incidence of violence and self-harm, systemic within the prison system, should be a matter of public concern. The fact that violence and harm in children’s prisons are rising makes these issues more pressing than ever.

About the author

Appointed in 1986 as chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook has been responsible for research programmes and campaigns to raise public concern about suicides in prison, the over-use of custody, poor conditions in prison, young people in trouble, and mothers in prison. She was awarded an OBE for services to youth justice in the 2010 New Year Honours List. She was appointed a Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics in 2010.