Inspection report on Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institution

By Agencies
January 10, 2018

Education and therapy for boys at Cookham Wood young offender institution (YOI) was undermined by a custody regime which kept them locked in cells while skilled and enthusiastic professionals waited for them in empty rooms, prisons inspectors found.

Difficulties in getting the 15-18-year-olds out of cells to attend the wide range of group-based services available led to a “significant waste” of resources, a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) said.

The report, following an unannounced visit to the YOI near Rochester in Kent, in August 2017, concluded that Cookham Wood had “many redeeming features”, including some enthusiastic staff. It assessed that “the vast majority of teaching, learning and assessment was good and boys achieved very well.” Cancelled education sessions had reduced in the two months before the inspection. However, the report noted: “Individual work was complemented by a range of focused group sessions, including art therapy and managing emotions and resilience groups. Difficulties remained in getting boys to group sessions, largely because of the lack of escort officers. Between April and June 2017, about 40 per cent of planned groups had been cancelled, which was a considerable waste of this valuable resource.” The report added: “The poor regime and delays in movements affected access to all services and represented a significant waste of resources as professionals waited in empty rooms for boys to arrive.”

Inspectors found Cookham Wood, holding 161 boys, to be less safe and more violent than at the previous inspection in 2016, with little evidence of an effective strategy to reduce violence.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons said, “While we did not underestimate the risks presented by some of the boys at the establishment and the need to manage their movements carefully, some of the unlock procedures were unnecessarily cumbersome and created further delays to an already curtailed regime.” Mr Clarke added: “The main prison regime was also poor and unpredictable. The lack of time out of cell restricted access to education, interventions and meaningful interaction with staff and other boys. What was perhaps most unforgivable was that there were many skilled staff and partners who were keen to work with boys to help them progress but their efforts were frustrated by the failure to unlock boys on time, if at all. We were told by numerous professionals that this was not uncommon.”

The report noted that the YOI estimated the average time out of cell over the previous six months before the inspection to be about 4.5 hours a day. However, a significant number of boys received far less.

Strengths at Cookham Wood included work with boys in their early days in custody, when they were well supported in reception and on the induction unit. Boys with potentially life-threatening medical conditions were encouraged to wear a medical alert wristband to help custody staff to ensure their safety, which was good practice.

Overall, Mr Clarke said, “A new governor had been appointed just weeks before our visit. We were encouraged by his optimism and plans to address the issues we have highlighted in our report. Cookham Wood retains many redeeming features, not least an extended team of enthusiastic staff with a wide range of skills. They now need to focus on ensuring that boys can access the services they need to progress.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service, said, “Regrettably, staffing shortages did affect the regime we were able to provide for boys at Cookham Wood, which is why we prioritised the recruitment of staff last year. As the Chief Inspector points out, the quality of teaching and learning provision is good, and we were able to provide greater access to education and training prior to the inspection. More Officers are now in post, with additional recruits in training, and with these new staff in place, the Governor will be able to provide a more consistent regime, reduce violence and provide better support for the young people in his care.”

Commenting on the report, Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform said, “No child is safe in Cookham Wood prison. Violence is rife. Staff are resorting to draconian punishments. It is shocking that boys as young as 15 are being held in such conditions.

“I visited the prison myself less than two weeks ago, and I was very disappointed to find boys were being locked up all day. Unsurprisingly, the inspectors found the same – teenagers with nothing to do, staring at bare walls for days on end.

“When I visited, the quality of the food was awful. Children were being given a very impoverished diet, so they were supplementing it by buying sweets and biscuits.

“This is a prison regime that lacks affection and kindness and imagination and skill. It is damaging children.”

The Howard League legal team runs a free and confidential legal advice line for children and young people in custody. The charity has received more than 100 enquiries in the last year either from or on behalf of children in Cookham Wood.

They include the case of a 15-year-old boy with significant mental health problems, who was locked in his cell all day on Christmas Day and was allowed only one exercise session between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.

The legal team has been made aware of children being unable to get clean clothes. A significant number of children have been held in conditions of solitary confinement, denied access to education and gym.

Howard League research has found that more than 1,000 days of additional imprisonment were imposed on children in Cookham Wood following disciplinary hearings, known as adjudications, in 2016 – a 35 per cent rise from the previous year.

* Read the full inspection report here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/

* Howard League for Penal Reform https://howardleague.org/

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