Young Offender Institution 'insufficiently good' in all four healthy prison tests

By agency reporter
February 19, 2020

HM Young Offender Institution (YOI) Cookham Wood in Kent, which holds up to 188 boys aged between 15 and 18, was found to be insufficiently good in all four of HM Inspectorate’s healthy prison tests.

These assessments in September 2019 included a deterioration in the ‘care’ test, from reasonably good in December 2018. The assessments for safety, purposeful activity and resettlement remained the same year on year.

However, Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “Despite these disappointing verdicts, local managers sought to provide some context in terms of their frustration at being unable to recruit and retain sufficient staff. New recruitment initiatives were underway and there was some hope that the impending closure of the adjacent Medway Secure Training Centre (STC) would lead to an influx of transferred staff in the new year.”

“Staff shortages, however, could not have come at a worse time as the institution was running near capacity as children were diverted away from Feltham A YOI, as that institution responded to the Urgent Notification we issued to it earlier in 2019.”

Cookham Wood was still not safe enough. Children were received into the institution reasonably well and levels of self-harm were lower than at comparable prisons. However, levels of violence, some of which was serious, remained high.

Mr Clarke added: “Work was in place to resolve conflict, supported by a comprehensive behaviour management strategy, but much of this was impeded by the shortage or regular re-deployment of staff. In addition, too much low-level poor behaviour went unchallenged and too little was done to encourage fuller engagement among children.” Safety was further undermined by overreliance on ‘keep apart’ lists, which hindered a full and smoothly-run daily regime, and by significant amounts of lock-up.

Use of force by staff had increased and was high: more than half of incidents required the full deployment of restraint techniques. Children could also find themselves segregated on at least two units, Bridge and Phoenix, or on normal location. “The purpose of these units required clarification and the regime for children on them was too limited, despite the attention of caring and supportive staff”, Mr Clarke said.

The YOI was modern but the upkeep was poor. Relationships between staff and children generally were not good enough. Barely two-thirds of children felt respected and staff rarely had sufficient time to engage meaningfully with them.

Inspectors found 28 per cent of children locked in their cells during the school day, with most accessing just five hours a day out of cell during the week and two hours at weekends. Access to the gym and library was restricted. Despite some improvements in provision, punctuality and attendance at education and vocational training were poor.

Oversight of resettlement work was similarly disappointing, lacking focus and coordination. Release on temporary licence (ROTL) assessments and public protection work were not sufficiently robust and just a quarter of children said they thought someone was helping them with their release. “The lack of suitable accommodation for children being released was very concerning”, Mr Clarke added. However, a 'family therapist' project to support children’s family ties was identified as good practice.

Overall, Mr Clarke said, “In the coming year, progress at Feltham will hopefully ease population pressures at Cookham Wood and the prospect of new staff provides some assurance that managers will be better placed to resolve the problems we identified. At this inspection we saw many hard-working staff and managers, and some improvements were evident, but so was some deterioration… Priorities we identify include an insistence on higher standards of living conditions and children’s behaviour, a need for a more active regime that incentivises and engages young people and a more robust and better coordinated delivery of effective resettlement services.”

Commenting on the report, Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “When a child is in trouble with the law, we should do all we can to guide them away from crime and give them a brighter future.

“Yet again, this is not happening in Cookham Wood, where boys are spending days on end locked in their cells without fresh air and education. Operational chaos and incompetence are no excuse for failing to give children the basic things they need. It is time to work positively for a solution that stops children being hurt and helps them to realise their potential. It starts with keeping them out of prison and giving them the care and support they deserve.”

In the last 12 months the Howard League has received more than 90 calls from or on behalf of boys in Cookham Wood prison. The issues raised most often were resettlement, adjudications, and treatment and conditions.

Some of the cases to which the Howard League legal team has been alerted are:

  • A boy with learning difficulties and mental health issues was held in segregation for 76 days.
  • An autistic boy complained that he had been restrained for not doing as he was told and was injured. This happened several times, and a number of safeguarding referrals were made.
  • A 15-year-old boy said that he had been locked in his cell all day for several days in a row because education classes had been cancelled frequently.
  • A 17-year-old boy was tried by the prison governor and fined for damaging his cell by starting a fire, even though this was an act of self-harm and the rules say children should not be punished for self-harm. The Howard League appealed the decision.  After almost five months, and after the child was released, the Ministry of Justice responded by upholding the decision – without dealing with concerns about him being punished for self-harm.

* Read the 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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