Report on the perceptions of children in custody

By agency reporter
January 30, 2019

Signs of improvement in youth custody establishments have yet to translate into greater feelings of safety for those detained, according to new analysis of the perceptions of children in custody.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, publishing the study of children held in 2017-18 in England and Wales, warned against complacency because of improvements seen in some recent inspections of secure training centres (STCs) and young offender institutions (YOIs).

Despite indications of improved behaviour, significant numbers of children in both types of establishment still said they had felt unsafe at some time. The figures were 34 per cent for STCs and 40 per cent in YOIs.

In February 2017, Mr Clarke warned the Minister for Victims, Youth and Family Justice that HM Inspectorate of Prisons could not then classify any STC or YOI as safe enough to hold children, because of high levels of violence.

This year (2017-18), Mr Clarke said, “there have been some encouraging signs of improvement in safety at some establishments, but history tells us that all too often early signs of improvement have not been sustained.

“A key factor in securing a safe environment for children in custody is finding positive ways to encourage good behaviour. During the year we published a thematic report on this subject, the key finding of which was that all effective behaviour management was underpinned by positive relationships between staff and children. Building those positive relationships is a key challenge for both STCs and YOIs, given the shortages of staff, their high turnover rates and, in too many establishments, very poor time out of cell for the children.”

Mr Clarke added: “It is notable that there has been no statistically significant shift in the perceptions of children about their treatment and conditions – either in STCs or YOIs. Too many children… (34 per cent in STCs and 40 per cent in YOIs) report having felt unsafe since coming into custody.”

The independent HMIP report was commissioned by the Youth Justice Board (YJB). Mr Clarke said the YJB and the recently created Youth Custody Service (YCS) within the prison service should fully understand a notable finding in the perceptions analysis. This is that significantly more (87 per cent) children in STCs reported being treated respectfully by staff than the 64 per cent of boys who did so in YOIs.

A total of 686 children, from a population in custody of just under 840, answered questions in a survey. Key findings included:

  • 42 per cent of children in STCs identified as being from a black or other minority ethnic background;
  • Over half of children (56 per cent) in STCs reported that they had been physically restrained in the centre;
  • Nearly a third of children in STCs (30 per cent) reported being victimised by other children by being shouted at through windows;
  • Over half (51 per cent) of boys in YOIs identified as being from a black or minority ethnic background, the highest rate recorded in surveys of YOIs:
  • Half of children (50 per cent) in YOIs reported that they had been physically restrained.

Mr Clarke said: “I trust that the details of this report will prove useful to those whose responsibility it is to provide safe, respectful and purposeful custody for children. As we all know, the perceptions of children in custody, will, for them, be the reality of what is happening. That is why we should not allow the recent improvement in inspection findings to give rise to complacency.”

Responding to the report, Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Once again, the inspectorate has rightly raised concerns about the safety of children in custody – but let us take a step back for a moment. It is shocking that the issue of safety is even a matter for discussion.

“We ought to be discussing how children are flourishing, how they are being cared for and supported to ensure that they go on to lead healthy and positive lives. What does it say about the prisons and secure training centres that they are not keeping children safe?

“This report tells us about the state of custody, but it also tells us something about practice in the youth courts. For the first time, more than half of boys in prison identify as being from a black or minority ethnic background. Sixteen months after the Lammy Review was published, it is disturbing that disproportionality is growing.”

* Read Children in custody here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons

* Howard League for Penal Reform


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