Plan for Europe’s biggest children’s prison 'would put young offenders at increased risk of harm or death'

Controversial plans to build Europe’s biggest children’s prison in the Midlands would put young offenders at increased risk of harm and even death, campaigners warned last night.

The Government intends to create a small network of “secure colleges” to hold the current 1,117 children in England and Wales but penal reform groups have warned that the idea is flawed and are urging MPs to back an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which will be debated on Monday.

Construction of a 320-bed, £85m “pathfinder” secure college, which will hold girls and boys between 12 and 17, is due to begin next year, on land next to Glen Parva prison, Leicestershire.

But the Children’s Right Alliance for England (Crae), Howard League for Penal Reform and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice are calling on MPs to back the move to kill off the proposals.

In a briefing given to backbenchers on the eve of the debate, they warn of “serious concerns about how children will be cared for and kept safe” in what will be a large children’s prison, and claim the approach is “fundamentally flawed”. Large institutions are or can be “violent and intimidating” and “struggle to provide the type of relationships and services which keep children safe”, they say.

The Government says that putting a large number of youth offenders in England and Wales into a small number of dedicated centres will significantly reduce the £100,000 current average cost of a place in youth custody.

But the campaigners said that small secure units – with highly trained staff – are best placed to give intensive support to children who are likely to have complex needs.

Paola Uccellari, director of Crae, told The Independent: “We are concerned that warehousing children in Europe’s biggest child prison will significantly increase the risks of self-harm and deaths in custody. The evidence shows that size matters: smaller institutions are better at caring for children and keeping children safe than large prisons. The secure college ‘pathfinder’ is an expensive experiment, which will place children at risk.”

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