TWO new reports paint a bleak picture of youth custody in England and Wales. While the number of children in custody continued to fall in 2022-23, levels of violence and self-harm rose by just over a quarter and a third respectively.

Children in custody 2022-23 analysed survey data from inspections of five young offender institutions (YOIs) and one secure training centre (STC) published between April 2022 and March 2023. In addition to the levels of violence, the report also found that children continued to spend far too long alone in their cells, with 28 per cent of those with less than two hours unlocked each day doing absolutely nothing with their time in custody. In this context it is unsurprising that less than half of children reported feeling cared for by staff, and nearly a third did not have a single member of staff they trusted to help them if they had a problem.

Almost all of the themes identified were also apparent in a report from an inspection of Werrington YOI, completed in August 2023, and also published on 21 November. This found that serious disorder had increased by 76 per cent since the last inspection, only a year earlier, with multiple incidents requiring the deployment of national resources. This included groups of boys trying to smash through doors to get to other children. Inspectors saw a classroom that could not be used with a damaged door and shards of broken glass following one such incident.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said: “The youth estate is significantly more violent than prisons holding adult men. We are storing up real problems for the future by failing to help children learn better ways to manage frustration and conflict and giving them access to the education many of them have missed out on in their lives before they were incarcerated.

“Two-thirds of the children in custody in 2022-3 reported having been in local authority care. For many, prison may therefore be the most stable environment they have known, and it should be an opportunity for them to build trusted relationships with staff who can help them to confront and move on from their past choices. It is therefore particularly disappointing to see that relationships with staff have deteriorated over the past year, and not even a third of children could name a single member of staff they believed would help them if they had a problem.”

While levels of staffing are a problem in adult prisons, children’s establishments are richly resourced with Werrington, for example, employing 340 staff to care for just 89 children. The profile of staffing, however, meant that while there were plenty of senior managers, the jail suffered from a shortage of the frontline officers who should be working directly with children. Half of these officers were unavailable for duties at the time of inspection because they were unwell or had been injured in the course of their work.

Mr Taylor said: “With such high levels of violence and the enormous impact on staff, it is understandable that ministers are considering introducing PAVA incapacitant spray. However we have serious concerns about this. Our report shows how poor trust already is between staff and children, and our inspections continue to find an absence of the basic activities that should improve both trust and behaviour which would be far more productive and serve public protection far better over time. The idea of adding something as drastic as PAVA into the mix, which risks increasing rather than reduce hostility, is a very worrying step in the wrong direction.”

Commenting on the two reports, Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.), Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Every child needs fresh air, exercise, education and contact with other people if they are to grow up, thrive and lead healthy lives.

“But the calls we receive reveal that children in prison are spending hours on end locked inside their cells, fearing for their safety. The inspectorate’s survey results only underline the fact that prison is no place for a child.

“This is why the Chief Inspector is right to oppose the use of PAVA in prisons holding children. When PAVA was piloted in prisons holding adults, evaluation findings indicated that it did nothing to reduce violence and in fact had a detrimental effect on relationships between staff and people who needed support.”

* Read Children in Custody 2022-23 here.

* Read the HMYOI Werrington report here.

* Sources: HMI Prisons  and Howard League for Penal Reform