CHILDREN’S EXPERIENCES in custody during 2019-20 disclosed a “grim” picture of violence and self-harm and long periods locked in their cells, according to Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales.

Responses to HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ surveys of children in young offender institutions (YOIs) and secure training centres (STCs) have been published in the Inspectorate’s annual children’s report. The establishments are designed to hold children aged from 12-18, though the large majority of those surveyed were 15-17 and 97 per cent were boys.

The evidence shows that while the number of children in custody in England and Wales has been falling steadily (to 815 in March 2020), experiences of their everyday lives continue to be disturbing.

The Chief Inspector, said the findings for children’s self-reported experiences in 2019-20, which cover inspection surveys in the year to April 2020, “describe the grim reality of life in custody and mirrors closely our own [inspection] findings, in which none of the STCs were good enough, and violence and self-harm in YOIs remained at or near an all-time high. Only one institution we inspected in 2019–20 was sufficiently safe.”

Children’s perceptions of their day-to-day life were a particular cause for concern, Mr Taylor added. “Most did not feel cared for by staff and many spent long hours locked up in their cells, particularly at the weekend. Less than half reported being able to sleep easily, and even fewer felt they were getting enough food. In YOIs, though the proportion had improved from 2018–19, only 68 per cent were able to shower every day.”

Children reported continued limits on time spent outside in the fresh air, with most unable to play sport even once a week.

Taylor said: “The ability of the youth estate to reduce violence continues to be a huge challenge, with many children feeling unsafe at some stage in 2019–20.” Children often felt that behaviour management systems were not effective and a higher proportion of children than in 2018–19 described being separated from their peers as a punishment. “The use of restraint remains much too high in youth custody.”

For many aspects of life in custody, the feedback from black and minority ethnic children, who made up more than 50 per cent of the population, painted a worse picture than for their white peers. Taylor added: “These children were more likely to say they had been restrained and were less likely to say they were cared for in custody or were well treated by staff.”

Half of all children who responded had been in local authority care and these children were more likely to report health problems or a disability. Children from  Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds are the most disproportionately represented group.

Children’s perceptions of the support they had received to become rehabilitated were poor, with only 49 per cent of children saying they had learnt something that would help them on release. Only just over half told the Inspectorate that their experiences in custody had made them less likely to offend in the future.

Overall, Taylor said, “These findings show how much work must be done in order that children in custody are given the support that they need to lead successful, crime-free lives when they are released. Nothing is more important than building effective, trusting relationships between staff and children, and this report shows that there is still a long way to go. Without further reductions in violence and restraint, and a greater focus on education and resettlement, the Youth Custody Service will continue to struggle to provide adequately for the children in its care.”

* Read Children in Custody 2019–20: An analysis of 12–18-year-olds’ perceptions of their experiences in secure training centres and young offender institutions here

* Source: HM Inspectorate of Prisons