Sunday, 13 May 2018

Youth Custody - On the Mend?

Judged last year to be “on the edge of coping with the young people it was charged with holding,” the youth custodial estate was placed under new management. Whether as a result or not,  Inspection reports on two of the most challenging institutions suggest that the crisis that has engulfed detention of young people may be easing.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke found that “overall, there had been excellent progress made at Feltham since the last inspection” with the west London Young Offender Institution achieving dramatic reductions in violence and improvements in child protection, safeguarding and governance of the use of force.  Medway Secure Training Centre was also judged by OFSTED, HMIP and the Care Quality Commission to have “improved in all areas since the last inspection”.

In both cases, progress has been from a low base and clearly there is very much more to do. Medway is still rated as requiring improvement and while Feltham is now judged reasonably good on safety, respect and resettlement, it’s still not sufficiently good on purposeful activity.  Clarke is of course right to say that “the progress could easily prove to be fragile if investment falls away or leadership loses its focus.” After all, Medway was judged good with outstanding features in September 2014, less than 18 months before Panorama revealed “targeted bullying of vulnerable boys by a small number of staff, conditioning of new staff and a larger group who must have been aware of unacceptable practice by colleagues. 

One of the most valuable elements of all inspection reports are the surveys which ask a sample of prisoners about their experiences and attitudes. The results enable comparison both with those of prisoners at the last inspection and at similar establishments.  It’s surprising perhaps, that despite its progress, boys at Feltham rate a worse experience in 17 areas and a better one in 9. Not all the areas should be given equal weight of course. But they merit a pause for thought.

Safety is fundamental and therefore it's highly  encouraging that fewer than one in ten boys felt unsafe this time compared to one in five last year. It's important too that many fewer boys think shouting through the windows is a problem. But the “dramatic” improvement in safety has left the numbers of boys who say they’ve been victimised by staff or young people at roughly the same level as before- just under a quarter.

In accounting for improvements, the inspectors are probably right to point to a better privileges scheme which has placed more than a third of boys on the top level compared to 12% last time- and which, contrary to the BBC’s frivolous reporting amounts to more than handing out sweets.   

But it's troubling that fewer boys can shower or make a phone call every day, find it easy to see the nurse, make an application or have a visit which starts on time. And while more have a remand, training or sentence plan fewer have a caseworker.  These are all areas which managers need to address in the coming year alongside those where previous findings have been ignored.

Most notable of these is the recommendation that under 18s should not be segregated in the Unit in the prison's young adult side. Clarke is right that progress depends on his recommendations being implemented. By my calculation, of the 80 made last time, 32 were fully achieved, 18 partially achieved and 30 not achieved. 

Such a calculation is not so easy to do in the case of Medway STC where the compliance with recommendations is not logged. Last time for example, inspectors said staff should be aware of young people with health conditions so modified holds can be used if physical restraint is needed. Now, "handling plans" are in place, but some staff did not know why, "undermining its purpose in ensuring that only safe holds are used for certain children". This recommendation has been partially achieved at best. But there is no summary of compliance.

The Medway report shows continuing wider issues with what is the widespread use of physical restraint of young people. During some episodes of physical restraint, “children felt pain even though techniques intended to cause pain were not used". Injury warning signs were identified eight times in the previous 6 months, most because children said that they could not breathe.

Just as troubling is the fact that 71% of children said in the survey that  they had been restrained while at the Centre, though records showed it was about half.  Indeed, the survey responses give a number of causes for concern. 29% of children said they'd felt threatened or intimidated by staff (vs 6% last time). More also experienced insulting remarks and physical abuse by staff. While, the changes may not be statistically significant, they look hard to square with the inspection’s conclusion that the STC has got better in all areas.  

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