The Prison Service in England and Wales has failed for more than a decade to deal effectively with young adult prisoners, missing opportunities to help them rehabilitate and putting communities at risk from reoffending, according to HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Charlie Taylor warned that outcomes would remain poor for young adults under 25 and for society unless HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) urgently addressed the current “haphazard” approach to more than 15,000 young adult prisoners.

Mr Taylor has published a thematic report, Outcomes for young adults in custody. The report concludes that HMPPS places most young adults in adult prisons without any coherent strategy and with little understanding of the way young men in their early 20s mature.

The Chief Inspector recalled the comments, in a report published in 2006 about young adults, from the former Chief Inspector, Dame Anne Owers. She warned then: “What will not work is simply to decant young adults into the mainstream adult prison population. That will not provide environments that meet standards of safety and decency – or, crucially, that are able to make a real difference to reducing reoffending among this age group.”

Mr Taylor said: “It is disappointing that this warning was ignored, and we now have a system where nearly all young adults have simply been placed into mainstream establishments, which have neither the resources nor the interventions to meet their needs”

The vast majority of prisoners aged between 18 and 25 are held in adult prisons. The report notes: “Young adults were placed haphazardly in a range of different types of establishment without considering their needs.” It also cites evidence that maturation in young adults is a slow process and may not be achieved until their mid-to-late 20s.

Mr Taylor added: “In general, the outcomes are poor for young adults when compared with those for older prisoners (those aged over 25). Young adults have worse relationships with staff, are less likely to be motivated by the behaviour management schemes and are far more likely to be involved in violent incidents. They are also more likely to face adjudications (prison discipline processes), to be placed on the basic regime and to self-harm.

“They report more negatively on day-to-day life, including relationships with staff, the quality of the food and the cleanliness of their wing. In addition, young adults have worse attendance at education and work. Black and minority ethnic prisoners are significantly over-represented in the young adult prison population, and the perceptions of treatment among this group are particularly poor.”

Mr Taylor said custody should be an opportunity to provide them with structure, meaningful activity and opportunities to address their offending behaviour.

“However, in HMI Prisons’ prisoner surveys less than half of young adults (46%) reported that their experience in their current prison had made them less likely to offend in the future. This missed opportunity to help young adult prisoners to improve their skills and reduce reoffending rates has consequences for society when they are released.”

The report found that where young adults were well-supported it was usually as a result of enthusiastic work by individual members of staff. Overall, though, Mr Taylor said: “There is a lack of a coherent response at the national level. There is no explanation for the current configuration of the (prison) estate, with only three dedicated young adult establishments for a population of over 15,000, no rationale for placing the majority of young adults in establishments that predominantly hold older prisoners and no evidence that placement decisions are made on the basis of need.”

A different approach was needed, Mr Taylor said. The report identified “specific, properly resourced young adult provision” at Hydebank Wood Secure College, Northern Ireland, as an example of what might be achieved.

As the Prison Service plans for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Taylor said, there is both an opportunity and an urgent need to develop specific policies and services for this group. “If action is not taken, outcomes for this group and society will remain poor for the next decade and beyond.”

* Read the report: Outcomes for young adults in custody here

* Source: HMI Prisons – Home (