Alliance for Youth Justice policy briefing on rethinking youth custody post-pandemic

Crises and crossroads for the children’s secure estate: Resisting child imprisonment and rethinking youth custody post-pandemic

This policy briefing prepared by the Alliance for Youth Justice is the third paper in a series of three aimed at understanding the challenges and opportunities created by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children and the youth justice system.


The number of children in custody has fallen significantly for more than a decade and is currently at a historic low of 422 children by March 2022. Despite this decline in numbers in the children’s secure estate, there has not been a similar improvement in the experiences of children in custody. HM Prisons and Probation Service (HMPPS) considers all Secure Training Centres (STCs) to have failed to meet good standards of safety and care since 2017 and children in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) experienced less educational provision and increasing use of force.

The paper details the impact of pandemic experiences on children and staff including:

  • Exacerbated mental health needs as a result of restrictions, isolation, uncertainty and disruption to services.
  • The risk that pandemic standards and practice will become embedded without fully understanding the impacts.
  • Changes to visits and contact, with the concern that technology should be used as an additional form of communication rather than a replacement for in-person engagement.
  • Disrupted education and reduced socialisation impacting children’s readiness for release and resettlement.
  • Exacerbated discrimination and disadvantage for children with care experience, children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and racially minoritised children.

The paper also found that the pandemic response showed why a clear central strategy is so critical to the management of the children’s secure estate:

  • Delays to building Secure Schools intended to replace YOIs and STCs and no plan on timeframes have shown a lack of child-focused management of youth custody by the government and the Youth Custody Service (YCS).
  • An over-centralised pandemic response focusing on adults in prison led to the side-lining of children in custody.

The policy briefing sets out a number of recommendations to repair harms caused by the pandemic as well as measures to rethink and improve the children’s secure estate:

  • Increasing access to education and other services for children, as well as measures to improve staff morale and retention.
  • Investment in prevention and early intervention to address children’s needs, to ensure that custody is only used as a measure of last resort for the shortest appropriate period for children.
  • Improvement in the response to children coming into contact with the law and helping prevent behaviour from escalating into offences.
  • Developing a national strategy and improvement plan for children in custody, including the government fulfilling its plan to close YOIs and STCs within ten years as recommended by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care.


The pandemic has been extremely harmful for children in custody and has exacerbated pre-existing concerns. The paper also highlights the need to address disproportionality in the number of children in custody from the care system, children with SEND, as well as racially minoritised children.

The current low custody numbers present an important opportunity to improve outcomes. However, with the number of children in custody projected to more than double by September 2024, reform to the secure estate has now become critical to ensure children’s needs are better met and to ensure that harmful practices adopted during the pandemic do not become embedded prior to understanding their impact. Strong vision and prioritisation is needed from the government and the YCS to make the most of this opportunity for change.


Written by Andro Atlaga, associate at Paul Hastings LLP