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Does the government have a plan for managing serious youth offenders?

Around 80 children in England and Wales are housed in two Secure Training Centres, run by private companies | Adobe Stock

7 min read

How to punish and accommodate children who commit the most serious crimes has long been a challenge. Now government plans to move to a novel “secure school” system seem to be drifting.
Kate Proctor looks at this often under-reported area of the criminal justice system

They were a response to the horrific 1993 murder of toddler James Bulger, when the national debate about what to do with child and teenage criminals reached a crescendo. The Conservatives lowered the age at which children could be sent to custody, and secure training centres (STCs) were established, initially to house 12 to 15-year-olds.

“There was a climate of moral panic about young children being out of control and having to get tougher with them,” says Dr Tim Bateman, chair of the National Association for Youth Justice and reader in youth justice at the University of Bedfordshire. 

He suggests they may sound a little “cosier” than a traditional young offender institution (YOI) as they provide education and training but in his opinion it is just “sugar-coating a retrogressive measure”. 

Secure training centres have always been run by private companies and today take children up to 17-years-old, often with very complex needs and requiring additional support, including 15 to 17-year-old males deemed too vulnerable to go into a YOI. 

Two facilities currently operate in England, housing around 80 children: one at Oakhill in Milton Keynes run by G4S, and another, Rainsbrook, in Northamptonshire run by US company MTC. A third one at Medway in Kent shut down in 2020 after years of controversy. 

Ofsted found staff at Medway were using pain-inflicting techniques on children, a finding which came three years after a 2016 Panorama documentary alleged staff at the centre were abusing inmates. 

For years, legal cases have been mooted by individuals whose lawyers suggest they have been illegally restrained while at an STC. According to a Guardian report from 2014, 14 children who were assaulted by G4S and Serco staff between 2004 and 2008 have received damages. Neither company admitted liability. 

The Rainsbrook centre hit the headlines before Christmas with a damning Ofsted report that found that during the coronavirus pandemic, new arrivals had been quarantined in their rooms for 23 and a half hours a day for 14 days. The House of Commons justice committee issued a stark warning to the government, saying it should take action by June 2021 if issues were not resolved.

While the youth justice system has made some incredible improvements, like reducing the number of children under 18 in YOIs from 3,300 to 550 since 2008 thanks to significant government efforts to keep children out of prison, fresh analysis by Labour shows serious problems remain in STCs, particularly around self-harm and assault. In the three months to 31 December 2020, incidents increased compared to the same period in 2019 within the STCs’ relatively small population.

While there were falls in self-harm in YOIs and secure children’s homes (SCHs – which house a mixture of welfare and youth justice cases), in STCs the rate increased by 16 per cent. 

“The government talks about rehabilitation, then lets violence and self-harm explode in the very places designed to get young people back on track” - Peter Kyle MP, shadow minister for victims and youth justice

Assaults increased by 38 per cent between October and December 2020 in the training centres compared to a year earlier – while it fell by 31 per cent in YOIs and by 46 per cent in SCHs. 

The rate of assaults on staff was also highest within STCs, at 703 incidents per 100 children and young persons per year between October and December 2020. At the secure children’s homes, the rate was 361 per 100 inmates, and 84 per 100 at YOIs. 

Labour has said that taking the youth prison estate as a whole (across all three settings) government figures show 1,755 self-harm incidents were recorded over the last year, despite an average prison population of just 708. Many self-harm incidents were repeats by the same child (with an average of 5.9 incidents per person).

Outcomes were particularly bad for girls. Just 27 girls accounted for 506 self-harm incidents in a single year – with each girl who self-harmed doing so an average of 19 times, more than four times the comparative rate for boys. 

Peter Kyle MP, shadow minister for victims and youth justice, says: “The human cost of the crisis in our youth prisons of violence and self-harm in this pandemic and before it is staggering.

“The government talks about rehabilitation, then lets an epidemic of violence and self-harm explode in the very places designed to get young people back on track. 

“This is a ticking time-bomb for the children and for public safety.” 

Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Justice Select Committee, has also had some blunt words for the Ministry of Justice about the running of Rainsbrook, blaming them for not overseeing MTC and suggesting the government should now consider taking the facility back in-house. 

Justice secretary Robert Buckland has said that what happened there was unacceptable and he set out a rigorous action plan for changes to be made. There is a new director of the centre and it is being refurbished.

"If it takes five years to create a secure provision for 50 kids, if you want to do it for 600 children, we’re talking 50 to 80 years if it was the same speed" - Dr Tim Bateman, chair of the National Association for Youth Justice

With the STC model attracting so much controversy over the years, there has been a long-standing government proposal to pilot a new approach, a secure school model, with a centre due to open at the Medway site in 2022 to be run by a religious school academy chain, the Oasis Charitable Trust. 

The secure school model was the brainchild of youth behaviour expert Charlie Taylor – now chief inspector of prisons – whose 2015 review of the justice system for young people proposed that YOIs and STCs should be replaced by a regional network of smaller secure schools. 

Dr Bateman says it’s been slow progress even getting a pilot scheme off the ground, as its original opening date was 2020.

He adds: “If it takes five years to create a secure provision for 50 kids, if you want to do it for 600 children, we’re talking 50 to 80 years if it was the same speed. Progress has been really snail-like. 

“There’s a real risk the secure school idea and that initiative will simply run out of steam unless there’s a commitment to see YOIs and STCs closed. There’s a danger we could become inured to these [negative] reports.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Self-harm and assaults have fallen by 56 per cent and 19 per cent respectively in the last 12 months in young offender institutions and we’re investing around £5m to give youth custody officers degree-level training so that they can support these vulnerable children even better.” 

So far 201 officers have completed the training and a further 227 are due to start, which the Ministry of Justice said represents more than 68 per cent of the eligible prison officer population.

MTC declined to comment. A spokesperson for G4S said the number of self-harming incidents at Oakhill was lower in 2020 compared to 2019, and that children in their care were more likely to be vulnerable than those in YOIs. The spokesman added: “Oakhill STC cares for a number of children with traumatic life experiences... Staff at Oakhill support these vulnerable children through clinical and psychological mental health support, and Young Person Intervention Plans.” 

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