Shine A Light

Investing in failure: the government’s plan for youth custody in England and Wales

Child prisons don’t work. Secure children’s homes do. Guess which ones the government is cutting?

Andrew Neilson
31 March 2012

Child prisons don’t work. Secure children’s homes do. Guess which ones the government is cutting?

In 2008 the Ministry of Justice decided to change Cookham Wood from a women’s prison to a young offender institution for teenage boys. The staff didn’t change. The buildings didn’t change. This prison for adults started locking up children in May of that year.

Thus began the history of what has quickly established itself as one of the most violent and unsafe prisons for children. Within a year of its opening there were a series of riots. Concern was so high that the government took the dramatic step to reduce the number of children who could be held there.

When its first inspection took place inspectors found “young people hiding in their cells too frightened to come out”. Bullying is rife and it has one of the highest numbers of injuries being sustained by children in prisons.

When, following the riots last August, concerns were being raised about the number of children being remanded to custody for the first time and how prisons needed to ensure their safety, two of these children were hospitalised following a serious assault at Cookham Wood.

In its latest report, published in 2011, HM Inspectorate of Prisons warned that while Cookham Wood “may be off the critical list, it should remain in intensive care”.

On 25 January this year, 15 year old Alex Kelly, who had been identified as being at risk of suicide, hanged himself in his cell at Cookham Wood.

This week the Youth Justice Board released its strategy for the secure estate including plans to expand Cookham Wood, allowing for nearly double the number of children to be incarcerated there by the end of next year. This proposal was not part of the public consultation that took place at the end of last year.

The Howard League is deeply concerned by this decision. Cookham Wood represents the systematic failure to protect children for whom prison is an extension of the abusive and neglectful homes in which they grew up. While we welcome the reduction in the number of children going to penal custody, this is not an excuse to place more in dangerous and crime-riddled jails. Alex was the second child to die in prison within a week in January. The government has denied repeated calls for a public inquiry that would look at the deaths of children in these prisons.

The Howard League’s research and programmes over the past two decades has led the charity to call for these prisons to close. For the few children in trouble with the law who have to be detained in custody, the secure environment should resemble that of the local authority-run secure children’s homes, which provide the highest standards of care and rehabilitation. However, they have been subject to a decade of closures, the total number being reduced from 22 to 10. As of 1 April there will be just 166 places in secure children’s homes while more than 2,000 children are imprisoned in England and Wales.

Children from greater London can expect to be sent to failing prisons such as Cookham Wood. There is now only one secure children’s home, in Southampton, catering for the entire South East of England. In the same strategy that announced the expansion of Cookham Wood, the government set out its intention to cut places in secure children’s homes even further.

The recent reduction in the number of children imprisoned in England and Wales is most welcome. The government could respond to this by decommissioning places in the failing child prisons and investing in more places within small local authority-run secure children’s homes. Instead it is cutting the provision that works best.

This will incur long term costs of unacceptably high reconviction rates (72 per cent of children are reconvicted within a year of being released from prison), more crime, more damage to children and higher long term financial costs to the public purse: an investment in little other than creating the adult criminals of tomorrow. 

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