HM Inspectorate of Prisons has published a report examining 12-to-18-year-olds’ perception of their experiences in secure training centres (‘STCs’) and young offender institutions (‘YOIs’) in England and Wales (the 'Report’). The findings are based on surveys and independent reviews of progress, which provide an assessment of how far the previous recommendations from inspections of the YOIs and STCs in 2021-2022 have been implemented. This Report has highlighted significant failings in the youth custody system, with particular focus drawn to the children's own (and largely negative) perception of care in the STCs and YOIs.
Despite the improvement of staff-to-child ratios in all settings due to lower population in STCs and YOIs (from 2015 onwards), the Report highlights mixed progress in many areas of concerns. Key findings regarding the children surveyed in STCs and YOIs in 2022-23 included:
Children in custody and their treatment
- There was an overall rise of the rate of assault incidents of 28% and increase of rate of self-harm by 37% compared to 2020-2022;
- YOI leaders often fail to effectively identify or address discrimination, despite the prevalence of children with protected characteristics in YOIs and STCs. 80% of children with disabilities reported having a problem on arrival in custody (compared with 64% of their peers), and more likely to report having a drug problem when they entered custody, being verbally victimised and even being sexually assaulted while in custody (reported by 7% of children with disabilities);
- Over half (55%) of the children reported being from a Black, Brown and Racialised background. These children are less likely to report that staff would explain what they had done wrong if they got into trouble than their white counterparts.
Children’s perception of care
- Only 46% of children said they felt cared for; 68% reported that there was a member of staff they could turn to for help and 32% did not have a single member of staff they trusted to help them if they had a problem. This last group of children were less likely to report that staff helped them to keep in touch with their families, encouraged them to attend education, seek for health care professionals or helped them to prepare for release and more likely to report higher levels of victimisation by staff;
- The main challenge faced by YOIs and STCs is reducing the conflict and violence which prevent children from spending time outside of their cells doing purposeful activities. Some children do not spend more than two hours out of their cell on weekdays and these children were less likely to be able to shower each day or have regular access to clean bedding and are even more isolated than the other group from staff, family and friends. Only 53% said they got visits from family, compared with 76% of the children who spent more than two hours out of their cell on weekdays. Fewer of these children were attending education and 28% of them (compared with 4% of other children) were not doing anything purposeful while they were in custody. Just 34% of children who spent long periods of time locked up reported having learnt something that would help them when they were released.
The Report shows that there has been a statistical shift for the worse in the perceptions of children about their treatment in STCs and YOIs, with an embedded sentiment of distrust towards the criminal justice system. In particular, reliance on keeping children apart to reduce conflict has prevented access to education, health care and offending behaviour interventions for many children, which directly conflict with the objectives of children's custody in secure training centres and young offender institutions, which primarily aims are to rehabilitate and reintegrate these children into society and provide them with a secure environment for their physical and emotional well-being, education, vocational training, and therapeutic interventions to address underlying issues. Despite the significant resources at their disposal, Youth Custody Service (‘YCS’) leaders fail to guarantee basic services for children in custody. There is an urgent need to address these failings and build a trusting environment in order to avoid children finding themselves in violent and unpredictable circumstances which hinder successful reintegration into the community upon release.
Written by Maria Korchik and Shivani Bajpai with Delphine Zhuang at Paul Hastings LLP