YOIs four months into COVID-19 – continued "avoidable" extreme lock-up troubles inspectors

Inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons were concerned that most children in two young offender institutions (YOIs) were still locked up for most of the day after four months of COVID-19 restrictions. They found that local management attempts at HYOI Feltham A and HMYOI Werrington to reintroduce education classes were blocked by the prison service and national staff associations.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said both YOIs had taken swift action in late March, when COVID-19 restrictions were first introduced. “Managers had communicated well with both staff and children and it was positive that formal consultation groups had been reinstated at both sites.”

However, the report noted: “Children at both sites told us they initially understood and largely accepted the need for the restrictions, but after 15 weeks of being locked up for more than 22 hours a day some were understandably frustrated about the slow progress in implementing activity, particularly as they saw restrictions easing in the community.” Children spent most of their day sleeping, watching TV or playing computer games.

Mr Clarke said: “As was the case when we last visited (three different) YOIs in April, our main concern during these visits was the extremely limited amount of time out of cell for all children. The primary cause of this was the decision to stop face-to-face education.

“As a consequence, nearly all children had been locked up for more than 22 hours every day since the start of the restrictions, which had been imposed some 15 weeks before our visit. This was both disproportionate and avoidable.

“The Government’s guidance is that children who are deemed vulnerable should continue to attend education. Children held in custody meet this definition, meaning education should have continued once the required safety measures had been put in place. Governors at both sites wanted to provide education and had, months before our visits, prepared plans that would have enabled it to be delivered. These plans were stopped by HMPPS and national staff associations.”

Mr Clarke added that the lack of face-to-face education in YOIs run by the Youth Custody Service, part of the prison service and Ministry of Justice, was in “stark contrast” to the provision at other establishments holding children, delivered by other providers.

“After an initial suspension to put health and safety measures in place, every YOI, secure training centre and secure children’s home managed by private or local authority providers has been able to deliver face-to-face education throughout the pandemic.”

At Feltham and Werrington, managers and staff were aware of the potentially negative impact of children spending so much time alone in their cells and the effects of such a restricted regime. Managers had been creative, within the substantial constraints placed on them, seconding prison staff to increase the youth work provision and introducing limited opportunities for children to eat communally (at Feltham). Enhanced welfare checks were carried out by a range of agencies at both sites. The YOIs appeared calm and well ordered, and recorded self-harm had reduced since the start of the pandemic.”

The suspension of visits by family and friends impacted many children at Feltham and Werrington. The rollout of Purple Visits (a secure video calling service) to both establishments in June was positive and managers were working to improve take up and establish ways to use spare capacity. Additional phone credit and letters were also given to children at both sites.

Both establishments worked hard to ensure that all children had accommodation on release and were met at the gate by a suitable adult. However, inspectors were concerned to see that in two cases at Feltham difficulties in finding someone to take a child home delayed their release. In the most serious case a lack of engagement by a local authority led to a child being held overnight in custody, despite being bailed.

Overall, Mr Clarke said:

“This report outlines positive work by local governors and their staff who acted quickly to keep children safe, delivered a consistent regime and implemented additional safeguards when needed for the children in their care. However, progress in implementing activity has been far too slow nationally. HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) national guidance has taken little account of the specific needs of children, and this has resulted in children at Feltham A and Werrington being locked up for 22 hours a day for nearly four months.”

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Notes to editors

1. A copy of the full report, published on 27 July 2020, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website.

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. This report discusses findings following short scrutiny visits (SSVs) to two young offender institutions (YOIs): HMYOI Feltham A, in south west London, and HMYOI Werrington, near Stoke-on-Trent. These establishments hold children aged 15–17 years old, as well as 18-year-olds who are coming to the end of their sentence or are awaiting a transfer to the adult estate. At the time of our short scrutiny visits each establishment held around 90 children and both were operated directly by the Youth Custody Service (YCS, the part of HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) responsible for children’s custody). The YCS runs four of the five YOIs in England and Wales – Cookham Wood, Feltham A, Werrington and Wetherby. Parc, in South Wales, is privately operated.

4. Our report on SSVs at three other YOIs – Cookham Wood, Parc and Wetherby, on 21 April – can be read on our website.

5. This report identifies nine examples of notable positive practice.

6. These announced short scrutiny visits to two young offender institutions – Feltham A and Werrington – took place on 7 July 2020.

7. Please contact John Steele at HM Inspectorate of Prisons on 07880 787452, or at john.steele@justice.gov.uk, if you would like more information. Please contact the Ministry of Justice news desk – 0203 334 0356 – for their comment.