COOKHAM WOOD Young Offenders Institution (YOI), holding 87 children aged from 15 to 18 years in Kent, was found by inspectors to have remained insufficiently good for safety, care and rehabilitation and release planning.

Its healthy prison assessment for purposeful activity, including training and education, had deteriorated to poor since HM Inspectorate of Prisons last visited in 2019. Children were locked up for much of day with little meaningful activity.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said the YOI held boys from across south and south-east England, ranging from those recently remanded to those serving indeterminate sentences for the most serious of offences.

“When we last fully inspected Cookham Wood in 2019, we were concerned to find that outcomes for children were not sufficiently good against any of our four tests of a healthy institution. At this inspection we found they had not improved and had in fact worsened in our purposeful activity test, where outcomes were now poor.

“For an institution providing services to children this inability to address failings was completely unacceptable. Admittedly the restrictions imposed by the pandemic had not helped, but it was hard to understand why the institution had not been more ambitious in, for example, providing a better (daily) regime, perhaps adopting an approach that mirrored more closely that adopted for children in the community or at other YOIs.”

Inspectors found parts of the prison where more than half of children were locked in cell during the school day and typically spent as little as four hours a day out of cell, and just two hours at weekends.

Mr Taylor added: “We found low morale among staff, low standards, low expectations and a lack of energy and creativity that could engage and motivate children to use their time at Cookham Wood usefully, despite holding only half the young people it was resourced to hold.” Its capacity is more than 190.

The rate of prisoner-on-prisoner violent assaults had increased by nearly 70 per cent since 2019 and was a serious concern. There were serious incidents and attacks by groups on individuals. Mr Taylor said: “The response to difficulties between children was invariably limited to keeping them apart, placing further restrictions on the regime. Leaders needed to find ways to move beyond this reactive and limiting approach, starting with energetic and motivational engagement with children, as well as the clear demarcation and enforcement of standards.”

A new governor and a further six senior managers had been appointed since 2019 and the governor was beginning to implement a business plan which prioritised reducing violence, the creation of communities of boys and investing in staff. These priorities seemed reasonable, Mr Taylor said, “although it was too early to discern progress and we were not convinced that staff were fully aware or engaged with this vision. Their engagement was not, however, optional. “Staff needed clarity about what was expected of them and leaders needed to show greater rigour in ensuring policies were understood and delivered. Poor practice and behaviour needed to be challenged consistently, and staff needed to make sure basic standards were maintained.”

In conclusion, Mr Taylor said: “We encourage close scrutiny by HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), and the provision of support to assist the new governor of Cookham Wood. There needs to be a shared and collective determination that establishes how and when improvements will be made.”

Responding to the report, Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “When a child is in trouble, we should do all we can to keep them safe, guide them away from crime and give them a brighter future.

“This does not happen in Cookham Wood, where boys are held in their cells for hours on end and exposed to violence and abuse. Even when the prison is only half-full, the environment is so toxic as to create more crime and distress. It is no place for a child.

“It is time for a new approach 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 need.”

* Read the full inspection report here.

* Sources HM Inspectorate of Prisons and The Howard League for Penal Reform