Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Youth Custody Update- Nothing for Young Adults , Fantasy for Children

Like many discussions on young adults in the criminal justice, today’s Justice Committee hearing turned out mostly to be about children under 18 instead. Indeed Justice Minister Dr Philip Lee did not seem all that convinced that young adults should be treated any differently from anyone over the age of 18.  Yes, the Prison service is piloting a maturity assessment tool for use with young adults although it wasn’t at all clear what practical measures will result from it.  One of the key questions- is it better for young adults to be accommodated in specific institutions or mixed with adults remains unanswered. There are only three young adult YOI’s left- Aylesbury, Deerbolt and Feltham B and there seemed little appetite from Lee or Prisons Chief Michael Spurr to develop the kind of age appropriate model which works well in other countries.

For under 18’s by contrast there seems an ambitious, if not precipitate, long term vision of replacing the current portfolio of closed establishments with the new secure schools proposed by Charlie Taylor in his review of youth justice.  The first two- one of which will be in the North West, will not be up and running for four or five years but Dr Lee seemed confident that when they prove successful they will be rolled out nationally by one of his successors. When pressed for detail about what they’ll be like, Lee told the committee the young people will spend more time outside and engage much more in sport.  More than once he quoted a Saracens Rugby initiative in Feltham which had a re-offending rate of 8%.

Lee is a keen sportsman. According to Wikipedia he has played competitive rugby union for Marlow RFC and seems to have followed the England football team at various tournaments which shows commendable resilience at least.  There’s a lot to be said for encouraging much more in the way of physical activity and team sports for young people behind bars. But surely a custodial strategy for this age group as a whole-including girls- needs to be based on very much stronger philosophical and policy foundations.     

In the meantime, Lee mentioned almost in passing, that controversial outsourcing giant G4S are no longer seeking to sell Oakhill STC and want to make a go of running the contract which lasts until 2029. In 2016, the company announced it would be selling its UK children’s business. Whether it cannot find a buyer or have had second thoughts is not clear.  Ofsted found earlier this year that Oakhill “requires improvement” so the results of the next inspection will be awaited with interest.  Spurr told the committee that another STC- Medway - had got a lot better since HMPPS had taken it over from G4S. In fact Ofsted found Medway “inadequate” back in March, eight months after the July 2016 takeover. YJB chair Charlie Taylor – who wasn’t at the hearing – has apparently found it much improved since then.

Given the latest G4S debacle at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, currently being investigated by the Home Affairs Committee, one might have expected Dr Lee and his colleagues to have informed Parliament and the public before today about the G4S change of plan. There must remain serious doubts about the company's fitness to look after some of the country's most vulnerable, damaged and challenging children.   

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