Violence and self-harm continue to rise as youth custody continues to struggle to recover from the pandemic

Read the report: Children in custody 2022-23

Read the report: HMYOI Werrington

Two reports published today paint a bleak picture of youth custody in England and Wales. While the number of children in custody continued to fall in 2022-23, levels of violence and self-harm rose by just over a quarter and a third respectively.

Children in custody 2022-23 analysed survey data from inspections of five young offender institutions (YOIs) and one secure training centre (STC) published between April 2022 and March 2023. In addition to the levels of violence, the report also found that children continued to spend far too long alone in their cells, with 28% of those with less than two hours unlocked each day doing absolutely nothing with their time in custody. In this context it is unsurprising that less than half of children reported feeling cared for by staff, and nearly a third did not have a single member of staff they trusted to help them if they had a problem.

Almost all of the themes identified were also apparent in a report from an inspection of Werrington YOI, completed in August 2023, and also published today. This found that serious disorder had increased by 76% since the last inspection, only a year earlier, with multiple incidents requiring the deployment of national resources. This included groups of boys trying to smash through doors to get to other children. Inspectors saw a classroom that could not be used with a damaged door and shards of broken glass following one such incident.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said:

“The youth estate is significantly more violent than prisons holding adult men. We are storing up real problems for the future by failing to help children learn better ways to manage frustration and conflict and giving them access to the education many of them have missed out on in their lives before they were incarcerated.

“Two-thirds of the children in custody in 2022-3 reported having been in local authority care. For many, prison may therefore be the most stable environment they have known, and it should be an opportunity for them to build trusted relationships with staff who can help them to confront and move on from their past choices. It is therefore particularly disappointing to see that relationships with staff have deteriorated over the past year, and not even a third of children could name a single member of staff they believed would help them if they had a problem.”

While levels of staffing are a problem in adult prisons, children’s establishments are richly resourced with Werrington, for example, employing 340 staff to care for just 89 children. The profile of staffing, however, meant that while there were plenty of senior managers, the jail suffered from a shortage of the frontline officers who should be working directly with children. Half of these officers were unavailable for duties at the time of inspection because they were unwell or had been injured in the course of their work.

Mr Taylor said:

“With such high levels of violence and the enormous impact on staff, it is understandable that ministers are considering introducing PAVA incapacitant spray. However we have serious concerns about this. Our report shows how poor trust already is between staff and children, and our inspections continue to find an absence of the basic activities that should improve both trust and behaviour which would be far more productive and serve public protection far better over time. The idea of adding something as drastic as PAVA into the mix, which risks increasing rather than reduce hostility, is a very worrying step in the wrong direction.”

Notes to editors

  1. Read the Children in custody 2022-23 report, published on 21 November 2023.
  2. The report draws from surveys and independent reviews of progress (IRPs) carried out by HMI Prisons in five YOIs and one STC in England and Wales in 2022–23, along with published statistics. The IRPs followed full inspections of these establishments in 2021–22 and were designed to provide an independent assessment of how far they had implemented the recommendations from the inspections.
  3. Since 2001, HM Inspectorate of Prisons has carried out a survey of all children living in young offender institutions (YOIs) and secure training centres (STCs) across England and Wales. In 2022–23 83% of children responded, providing an unrivalled insight into their perceptions of treatment and conditions in custody.
  4. Of the children we surveyed in 2022–23, 55% were from a minority ethnic background, 98% were boys, 66% reported having been in care, 45% reported having health problems, 30% said they had a disability and 22% identified as Muslim. Children with disabilities were much more likely to tell us that they had felt unsafe and had experienced victimisation than other children. While most of this victimisation was verbal in nature, we were concerned to find that 7% of children with disabilities reported having been sexually assaulted while in custody.
  5. Read the HMYOI Werrington report, also published on 21 November.
  6. The inspection of Werrington took place between 31 July and 11 August 2023. Werrington is a young offender institution near Stoke-on-Trent, which at the time of this inspection held just 89 boys aged between 15 and 18 years.
  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 email media@hmiprisons.gov.uk if you would like more information.