AN INSPECTION of a Kent young offender institution (YOI), HMYOI Cookham Wood, found an establishment that was deteriorating fast, with weapon-making and violence rife and boys held in solitary confinement for extended periods. Some staff members seemed to have ‘given up’ and no longer even bothered to wear the correct uniform to work.

Cookham Wood held only 77 boys at the time of inspection, whose care was being overseen by around 360 staff, including 24 senior leaders. Nearly a quarter of the boys in the YOI said that they felt unsafe; this was perhaps unsurprising in view of the levels of violence and the more than 200 weapons found in the months leading up to the inspection.

Rather than engaging in conflict resolution, leaders had introduced extensive instructions on which boys were known to be in conflict and needed to be kept apart from each other. At the time of the inspection, 90 per cent of boys were being kept apart from other prisoners, resulting in nearly 600 separate instructions. This undermined the provision of any meaningful regime, with access to education and other activities determined by which children could safely mix, rather than their individual needs or abilities.

Despite this, levels of violence remained high and some boys spent days on end languishing in their cells in response to incidents. During that time, most had hardly any meaningful human interaction. Other children were separated for their own protection, and inspectors met two boys who had been subjected to solitary confinement for more than 100 days because staff could not guarantee their safety.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor said: “Cookham Wood holds some of the most challenging yet vulnerable children in the criminal justice system. Staff should be supporting them in learning how to manage their behaviour and deal with conflict so that violence is reduced within the YOI, and they are less likely to reoffend on release. Instead, we found boys locked in their cells overseen by demoralised, frightened staff while leaders stayed out of sight in their offices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, staff spoke openly of how little confidence they had in the leadership. We were surprised and concerned to hear that, since the new governor had been appointed, no senior leader from the Youth Custody Service had been to see for themselves the failings at Cookham Wood.”

Evidence of the deterioration of Cookham Wood was also apparent in the physical conditions of the YOI. Living units were dirty, important equipment was broken and graffiti was rife. Significantly, standards in staff facilities, such as offices, were also not good enough. No one, it seemed, had challenged any of this deterioration.

Mr Taylor said: “These findings would be deeply troubling in any prison, but given that Cookham Wood holds children, they were completely unacceptable. As a result, I had no choice but to write to the Secretary of State immediately after the inspection and invoke the Urgent Notification process.”

The report, published on 18 July, notes that there will need to be urgent, concerted and long-term commitment from leaders at the YOI and from the Youth Custody Service to improve standards at Cookham Wood and make it an acceptable place to hold children.

Responding to the report, Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.), Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is a damning report that sets out in shocking detail why prison is no place for a child. How can boys hope to thrive in an environment where conditions are filthy, equipment is broken, education is virtually non-existent, staff are demoralised and violence is rife?

“Worst of all in this long litany of failures is the normalisation of solitary confinement, to the point where many children are spending 23-and-a-half hours each day locked inside their cells. This is particularly concerning in a prison where more than half the boys are on remand, awaiting trial or sentence, and we know from the Howard League advice line that there are children in other prisons being held in similar conditions.

“The Howard League has warned for many years that Cookham Wood is unsafe and totally unfit for children. This is the latest in a long line of devastating reports, and probably the worst yet. In a jail without hope, it seems that even the staff have given up. What more evidence do ministers require to close this prison and ensure that boys are given the attention, care and support they need?”

* Read the HMYOI Cookham Wood inspection report here.

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