HMYOI Cookham Wood - some improvements but concerns overall

Although some improvements had been made at HMYOI Cookham Wood, overall concerns had grown, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons. Today he published the report of an unannounced inspection of the young offender institution in Kent.

At the time of this inspection, HMYOI Cookham Wood held 166 boys, most aged 16 or 17. Successive inspections have noted the very challenging and vulnerable profile of the boys held, but now, for the first time, about 10% of the boys held had been convicted of or charged with murder or manslaughter and faced many years in prison. The challenge of managing all these boys safely and positively was great. Staff required significant skills and experience in working with this age group and needed to know the boys in their care very well. About 25% of the staff were on detached duty and many of them did not know the work, the institution or the boys. Faced with a larger, more challenging population and significant staffing issues, it was not surprising that outcomes for the boys held had deteriorated overall.

The level of risk in YOIs holding children is now such that they are inspected annually, although the degree of scrutiny Cookham Wood receives from inspectors and other bodies is itself a pressure. Despite the difficulties, Cookham Wood had made important progress in some areas in a comparatively short period of time.

Inspectors were pleased to find that:

  • the reception area had improved and boys continued to be well cared for when they first arrived;
  • oversight of safeguarding had now improved, though there were still some weaknesses;
  • staff were now being trained in the new restraint procedure, Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint (MMPR) that emphasised de-escalation techniques;
  • levels of self-harm had fallen since the last inspection;
  • primary health care had improved and health care staffing was more stable;
  • the environment and the regime in the Phoenix Unit which held boys who needed to be segregated for good order and discipline had improved significantly;
  • boys with complex needs were now held in the Cedar Unit which provided good levels of care;
  • when reviewing CCTV footage, inspectors saw examples of officers responding bravely to protect boys from attacks;
  • work on equality and diversity issues had improved, although there was still more to do;
  • for boys who did get access, the overall effectiveness of education, learning and skills was good; and
  • resettlement was the best performing area of the establishment – all boys had training plans which were regularly reviewed, public protection arrangements were sound and practical planning for release was generally well organised.

However, inspectors were concerned to find that:

  • 41% of boys said they had felt unsafe at some time compared with 27% at the last inspection;
  • boys reported more negatively about relationships with staff than at the last inspection;
  • the number of violent incidents remained very high and in the six months leading up to March 2015 there had been 61 assaults and 92 fights, some of which were very serious;
  • staff assaults had almost doubled since the last inspection with 21 in the preceding six months, some resulting in serious injury;
  • behaviour management processes were weak and low-level poor behaviour was not promptly challenged and so it escalated, while good behaviour was not publicly recognised so there was little incentive to behave well;
  • the establishment relied heavily on procedural security measures and, as a consequence, movement around the establishment was severely restricted which limited access to education and other activities;
  • pain compliance techniques were used but not all were recorded;
  • discussion with staff often revealed low expectations and inspectors saw staff backing off from dealing with difficult issues;
  • boys had much too little time out of their cells, and staff shortages meant the establishment was running a restricted regime;
  • inspectors found 36% of boys locked in their cells during the core day, some of whom were too frightened to mix with others, some activities were cancelled and other boys had restrictions placed on what they could do because they had to be kept apart from other boys;
  • there were too few opportunities for boys to do paid work in peer mentor or orderly roles and security restrictions restricted the level of vocational training offered; and
  • 41% of boys said they had been in local authority care, but absences in the establishment’s social worker posts meant that liaison with these boys’ home local authority were not fully effective and it was difficult to ensure they had appropriate accommodation when they left.

Nick Hardwick said:

“Cookham Wood reflects the systemic problems we have identified across the YOI estate. The welcome fall in the number of children in custody means that those who remain represent a more concentrated mix of very challenging young people, held in a smaller number of establishments that are increasingly unsuitable to meet their needs, and cared for by a staff group beset by shortages and a lack of training for their complex and demanding role. This report makes recommendations about what Cookham Wood could and should do to improve, but a much wider political and policy response is needed if we are to fulfil our responsibilities to care for these, our most damaged children, safely and help them to grow into adults who are valued, not feared.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service, said:

“As the inspector noted, Cookham Wood manages an increasingly complex group of boys. Since the inspection, staff numbers have increased; a new education contract has been introduced; staff have been trained in new restraint techniques and safeguarding measures have been strengthened, all of which have had a positive impact on safety and behaviour.

“Tackling violence and providing a safe environment remains the Governor’s biggest challenge and top priority and work will continue to improve standards even further.”


Notes to editors:    

  1. Read the report.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment, and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  3. HMYOI Cookham Wood is a young offender institution for boys aged 15 to 18.
  4. This unannounced inspection was carried out from 5 – 15 May 2015.
  5. Please contact Jane Parsons (HMI Prisons) on 07880 787452 if you would like more information.