WERRINGTON, A YOUNG OFFENDERS INSTITUTION near Stoke-on-Trent, was found by HM Inspectorate of Prisons to have violence levels higher than any other establishment in England and Wales during the six months prior to inspection.

Children told inspectors that they carried weapons because they were not confident staff could keep them safe.

During the previous 12 months, records indicated that nearly 400 weapons had been found. In the six months preceding the inspection, there had been 105 assaults among children and 82 assaults on staff – a number of these had been serious and led to the hospitalisation of 31 children. These figures represented 23 assaults for every 10 children, higher than any other prison in England and Wales.

The prison was overly reliant on ‘keep-apart’ lists, which sought to separate individuals or groups who, if allowed to mix, risked becoming violent. Inspectors found an astonishing 263 keep-aparts among a population of 66 children. Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “This ineffective and harmful arrangement was, in effect, a reactive process of risk avoidance, rather than risk management, and had come to totally dominate life in Werrington.”

The process of keeping children apart in this way had a severely detrimental effect on the provision of education. Learning was provided not on a basis of needs but according to which children could mix with one another. Many children found themselves unable to take their preferred course and instead doing those which did not engage them. The curriculum for functional skills in English and mathematics was uninspiring and too focused on learning merely to pass the exam.

Andrea Coomber, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is one of the most horrifying inspection reports that the Howard League has seen. It is a 69-page document of failure that could be summarised in just seven words: prison is no place for a child.

“Instead of being kept safe, boys as young as 15 are living in fear from violence and abuse in Werrington – and the prison’s response has made matters worse.

“Rather than solving problems, staff have relied on trying to keep children apart. It does not appear to have made the jail any less toxic, and the boys have been denied access to education that might help to guide them away from crime.

“Werrington was barely half-full when the inspectors arrived and, even then, the children were in danger. It is time for ministers to act. Look at the evidence, keep children out of prisons, and ensure that boys and girls in trouble receive the care and support they need.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “The government’s provision of custody for children is in disarray. The promise of a new strategic approach, with a commitment to ‘secure schools’ made as long ago as 2016, has simply not been delivered. This latest, shocking, inspection report about an institution once held up as a model of good practice shows how urgently a coherent plan is needed.

“It is deeply worrying that ministers appear content with a forecast that the number of children in custody will increase, at a time when so much of the provision to hold them – public or private – is in crisis. Nothing could serve public protection worse than continuing to send children to places that are clearly failing in their rehabilitative mission.”

Werrington started life in 1895 as an industrial school and was subsequently purchased by the Prison Commissioners in 1955. It converted to a youth custody centre in 1985 and in 1988 it became a young people’s centre. It currently holds sentenced and remanded children aged 15 to 17 years. At the time of this inspection, the establishment held 64 children.

* Read the report on HMYOI Werrington here.

* Sources: HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Howard League for Penal Reform, and Prison Reform Trust