Friday 27 September 2013

Young Adult Offenders- Time to Reverse Years of Neglect

It’s not often that Russia provides lessons on prison reform but earlier this year the Federal Penitentiary Service proposed that the age at which teenage offenders must be transferred to adult penal colonies should be deferred from 19 to 25 years old. Depending on maturity and behaviour, young adults will be able to stay in juvenile correctional facilities where they will be protected from the worst risks of the adult system and can benefit from the educational regime on offer.

Contrast this with the direction of travel in England and Wales where increasingly young adults are being held alongside older inmates in establishments that combine the functions of a specialist Young Offender Institution (YOI) and adult prison. It is sometimes claimed that adults can have a positive influence on the behaviour of younger prisoners. It is certainly true that many establishments which exclusively house young offenders struggle to keep violence under control and to deliver the educational approach they are supposed to. The Prison Inspectorate’s scathing report on Feltham B earlier this year questioned the viability of it being set aside for just young adult prisoners.

But does the answer really lie in integrated establishments? Earlier this week the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) at Portland in Dorset reported serious concerns about mixing young offenders and adult prisoners.   They reported a dramatic increase in drug finds and a rise in substance trading, debt, bullying and pressure on susceptible prisoners which made the facility much less safe. The IMB suggested that a clear physical separation of young people and adults on the site would be an improvement.

A new report I've written for the Transition to Adulthood Alliance looks at how best to deal with this challenging age group in a prison setting.  Focussing on the arrangements in England and Wales where the government is considering the future of the young adult custodial estate, the report draws on lessons from Europe.

In Germany , in each of the lander , separate youth prisons accommodate all of those from 14-21 sentenced by the courts. Under 18’s and young women live in separate house blocks but take full part in the active daily programme of education , training and employment. Unlike many British prisons, almost no young people are found on the wings during the day with evenings and weekends filled with a wide range of recreation activities. The campus at Neustrelitz north of Berlin feels more like a further education college than a prison. Staff eat their lunch in a canteen alongside the trainees. In the UK meals are almost always taken in cells , with disruptive prisoners subject to the  what is sometimes disturbingly called “controlled feeding”.

The Prison Service in England and Wales acknowledges that even in a dedicated YOI, life for a young offender is not that different to prison life for adult prisoners. Staff in a YOI they admit “will not be able to give you much individual support, as there will generally be one member of staff for every ten young people.”  This is a starling admission and the nub of the problem.  Wherever they are held , young adults require  regimes and levels of care and intervention which respond to their distinctive and developing needs.   

This will be particularly true in the re-designated regional resettlement  prisons which will prepare prisoners for release. As with the Transforming Rehabilitation Proposals as a whole, without a specific focus on the young adult age group, they will continue to be a neglected group. 

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