Children in custody - negative experiences underline need for reform of YOIs

Children in the five Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) in England and Wales are more negative about their treatment by staff, time out of cell and access to everyday essentials than those held in Secure Training Centres (STC), according to an analysis of the perceptions of their experiences in 2018-19.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said the more negative experiences of those in YOIs, across a wide range of aspects of custodial life, “unequivocally show the need for sustained reform in this sector which holds more than three-quarters of all the children detained in England and Wales.”

Mr Clarke made his call for reform as he launched the latest annual publication of the report – Children in Custody 2018–19 – An analysis of 12–18-year-olds’ perceptions of their experiences in secure training centres and young offender institutions. Nearly 80% of all children aged from 12 to 18 who are held in different forms of custody are in YOIs – 712 out of a total of 920 at the end of March 2019. YOIs are designed to hold 15-18-years-olds and the majority are 16 and 17.

The new report followed the publication on 21 January 2020 of another, disturbing, report on the widespread and varying use of separation of children in YOIs from their peers, amounting in many cases to the widely-accepted definition of solitary confinement. That report, Mr Clarke said at the time, also underlined the need for urgent and fundamental reform.

The analysis of surveys of children’s perceptions captured during inspections showed an overall relatively stable population, Mr Clarke said. However, he added, “this stability masks the continued, and in some cases, increasing overrepresentation of different groups in custody. More than half of children responding to our survey identified as being from a black and minority ethnic background and almost one in 10 said they were from a Gypsy, Romany or Traveller community. In addition, 52% told us that they had been in the care of a local authority at some point prior to entering custody.”

As in previous years, the most pressing issues for children were the increasing levels of bullying and violence across all types of institution. Forty-eight per cent of children reported having experienced victimisation by other children in their current establishment. The rising levels of violence led to increasing use of restraint and separation. Nearly two-thirds of children reported being subject to restraint and 59% reported having been kept locked up and stopped from mixing with other children as a punishment.Mr Clarke added: “Inspectors continue to see too few incentives for children who behave well and chronic inconsistencies in the application of rewards and sanctions, particularly in STCs.”

Only 41% of children reported that someone was helping them to prepare for release. Mr Clarke said: “This supports the findings of our thematic inspection of resettlement provision in YOIs, completed this year. Inspectors tracked the cases of 50 children in detail and found accommodation was regularly arranged far too close to the point of release and only 11 had any sort of activity arranged on release.”

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“I do not underestimate the challenge facing those responsible for holding children in custody. However, there is a growing body of evidence that shows the pressing need for children’s custody to receive consistent, focused and indeed innovative attention from policy-makers and senior practitioners to ensure that all children are held in safe, decent conditions where their needs are properly recognised and met.”

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Notes to Editors:
1. The report, published on 12 February 2020, can be read on the HMI Prisons website.

2. The key findings are on pages 11 and 12 of the report.

3. The report covers the experiences of boys in five male YOI establishments and in a separate specialist unit for boys considered to be vulnerable (the Keppel Unit) within HMYOI Wetherby. The report also covers children held in three secure training centres in England. This includes a small number of girls. HM Inspectorate of Prisons, as part of our regular inspection process at secure training centres (STCs) and young offender institutions (YOIs), conducts surveys of the children who are detained in those establishments. These surveys contribute to the evidence upon which we judge the treatment and conditions experienced by those being held in custody. They are particularly valuable, not only in providing data about the perceptions at the time of the inspection, but also in giving indications of trends. This is why we consider it essential that we maintain the tempo of our inspection activity in STCs and YOIs. The alignment of questions asked in STCs and YOIs means that for the first time we can compare in detail the perceptions of children held in different sectors.

4. HM Inspectorate of Prisons leads, with Ofsted and CQC colleagues, on inspections of YOIs. Ofsted leads on inspections of STCs, supported by HMI Prisons, which conducts surveys for both types of establishments.

5. The report does not cover secure children’s homes (SCHs), a third type of custody establishment.

6. The five YOIs are Feltham A, Cookham Wood, Wetherby and Keppel, Werrington and Parc. The three STCs are Medway, Oakwood and Rainsbrook.

7. 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.

8. Please contact John Steele, Chief Communications Officer at HMI Prisons, on 07880 787452 or at if you would like more information.