Report finds HMYOI Cookham Wood making progress but needs to tackle culture of fighting

By agency reporter
April 21, 2019

HMYOI Cookham Wood, near Rochester, holding 165 boys aged between 15 and 18, was found to be a “largely settled” establishment but one that also struggled to prevent the boys fighting.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said Cookham Wood faced the challenges of holding a group of young people with complex needs, a significant minority of whom were facing quite considerable sentences for serious offences.

The YOI was last inspected in 2017 and the assessments in December 2018 remained the same – insufficiently good in safety, purposeful activity and resettlement, but reasonably good in care. Inspectors, however, had identified improvement within the assessment bands.

Fewer boys in the inspection survey said they felt unsafe – 10 per cent compared with 25 per cent in 2017 – and there were promising initiatives to encourage better behaviour, including a family sports day identified as good practice.

However, violence and use of force by staff were high – though de-escalation was good – and dealing with assaults and fights was a central challenge for the YOI.

The report noted that “staff were constantly caught up in the management of extensive and complicated keep-apart protocols which forced them to unlock and lock up children individually in case they might fight or attack others.” In some part of the YOI these “cumbersome” unlock practices resulted in a limited regime for every child located there.

Boys spoke of the ‘rules of the game’ in relation to fighting: “a culture had been established whereby there was an obligation on children to fight with children from a different postcode, gang or wing.”

“However, this obligation ceased when a child moved onto the enhanced wing or the resettlement unit. Once there, children were ‘allowed’ to socialise with the former enemy because they now shared a desire to protect the enhancements and privileges available to them on these units.”

Managers and the psychology team were recommended to talk to the boys “to learn more about their propensity to fight and to understand why the ‘rules of the game’ change” and work towards a significant reduction in keep-apart protocols.

The need for this was clear. Mr Clarke added: “Some young people, because of keep-apart restrictions, spent almost as much time each day being escorted to and from activity as they did in the activity.”

Most young people said they felt respected by staff and inspectors saw evidence of care and compassion from staff, despite many being relatively inexperienced. Most staff were growing in confidence, were knowledgeable, and spoke positively about those they cared for.

Living conditions and cells were mostly good, although inspectors were concerned about a number of cells extensively covered in graffiti, including gang-related signs and “unacceptable images of violence and racism.”

The amount of time that young people spent unlocked was slightly better than in 2017 but inspectors still found that a quarter of the boys were locked up during the working day. Though education and training required improvement, the YOI could show good examples of boys getting jobs on release in football, the arts and catering.

Overall, Mr Clarke said: “We believed Cookham Wood to be an institution that was progressing but not yet to the point where this could be recognised in our healthy prison assessments. The institution was nevertheless well led by a governor and team that seemed receptive to innovative ideas and were working hard to support a relatively inexperienced staff group to grow in confidence and competence. Priorities for the year ahead remained the reduction in levels of violence and ensuring young people were required to engage in purposeful activity consistently.”

Notable features from this inspection: 50 per cent of officers were in their first year; two-thirds of children said they had been physically restrained while at Cookham Wood; most children had showers and telephones in their cells; two-thirds of children were from black and minority ethnic backgrounds; 34 children were accused or convicted of offences of murder or manslaughter; a resettlement unit had been opened for children approaching release.

* Read the report here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.