Young offender institutions on course for 'tragedy', prisons inspector warns
Standards in young offender institutions have deteriorated to the point that it will “inevitably end in tragedy” unless urgent action is taken, the chief inspector of prisons has warned.
In a damning report, the watchdog said there had been a “dramatic and rapid decline” in adult male jails over the last 12 months and “startling increases” in violence.
But the starkest warnings were reserved for the safety of children and young people in custody.
HM chief inspector Peter Clarke said he had written to ministers in February when inspections had found none of the buildings designed to house young people were considered safe.
“The fact that we had reached a position where we could not judge any institution to be sufficiently safe was bad enough, but the speed of decline has been staggering,” he said in the annual report.
“The current state of affairs is dangerous, counterproductive and will inevitably end in tragedy unless urgent corrective action is taken.”
The Ministry of Justice said the safety of young people in custody was its "absolute priority" but Mr Clarke told the Government to “start taking the recommendations seriously”.
Mr Clarke drew attention to figures showing self-harm rates among young offenders had doubled and assaults almost doubled since 2011, while fewer were in jobs, vocational training or behaviour programmes.
He added: “We see establishments in which there seems to be something of a vicious circle. Violence leads to a restrictive regime and security measures which in turn frustrate those being held there.”
The assessment of adult male prisons was similarly downcast, with incidents of suicide, assault and self-harm all increasing in recent years.
Mr Clarke said: “Last year I reported that too many of our prisons had become unacceptably violent and dangerous places. The situation has not improved – in fact, it has become worse. There have been startling increases in all types of violence.
The Government has committed to increasing prison officer numbers – having cut them in the past – and Mr Clarke said staffing levels in many institutions were “simply too low to keep order”.
‘START TAKING THIS SERIOUSLY’
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson highlighted the establishment of the new Youth Custody Service, which will operate as a distinct arm of the Prisons Service.
“The safety and welfare of every young person in custody is our absolute priority and we are clear that more needs to be done to achieve this," the spokesperson said.
“But we also want custody to improve the life chances of children in our care and to deliver improvements to education and health services within youth custody.
“That’s why we have created a new Youth Custody Service, with an Executive Director for the first time in the Department’s history – to make sure this vital area is given the priority and weight it deserves.
“The new Director will lead on reforms to the running of the youth estate, including boosting the number of frontline staff by 20% - all of whom will be specially trained to work in the youth estate.”
But speaking to the BBC’s World at One, Mr Clarke expressed scepticism about the Government’s ability to grasp the problem.
He said: “I’ve heard of quite a lot of new units being formed in the Ministry of Justice and in the prisons service. I hope they will deliver on what they intend to.
“One thing they could start doing is start taking our recommendations seriously. They accept virtually all of them – last year 95% of our recommendations were accepted and only around half were actually implemented. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that we don’t see a lot of improvement.”
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