Prison that dangerous children call 'home' is to close

The small suburb of Anerley, in the south London borough of Bromley, is the epitome of commuter-belt tranquility: tree-lined streets, BMW X5s parked on the high street and half-hourly trains to central London.

Yet a few hundred yards from the station, tucked away at the back of William Booth Close, is Orchard Lodge, London's last secure children's home.

Its residents, boys aged between 12 and 16, fall into three categories. Some are there on welfare grounds, perhaps because they repeatedly self-harm; others are on temporary stay for remand purposes; and others still have been sentenced. The majority have usually committed terrible crimes: armed burglary, sexual abuse, rape, manslaughter, and even murder.

Opened in 1986 by boxer and local boy Henry Cooper, Orchard Lodge's pleasant campus spreads over six-and-a-half acres and combines grassy knolls with a series of inoffensive-looking buildings. An administration block caters for the 70 full-time staff; there's a concrete play area, a school with six classrooms and three secure units, each with eight bedrooms.

The 13 other similar homes around the country belong to local authorities. Orchard Lodge is privately owned.

Security is intense and unremitting. Contact with the children is heavily restricted, but The Independent was given access to facilities at the Lodge.

Staff members enter the secure area using a huge bunch of keys strapped around their waist. Visitors, including this correspondent, are instructed to leave all belongings outside – everything from wallet, phone and keys to pen and pad – because, according to Annette, the facilities manager, "they'll have them off you". There are security cameras and flashing alarms on ceilings, and a sign on each gateway between secure and unsecure areas that reads: "WARNING! Do not enter secure area if red light is flashing".

At lunchtime, extra standby staff patrol between the maths and art classrooms. Some of the kids are frustrated or hyped after a boring morning, and need to be restrained by staff before settling down for a plate of stew, chips, and salad. One of the younger children entertains his peers with card tricks, saying he's the next David Blaine.

The bedrooms, painted mauve, are 12ft by 10ft, with high ceilings. One contained typical teenage accoutrements: Playstation, small television, magazines. The atmosphere is thick with a sense of encroaching institutionalisation, although patient staff bring a tangible compassion to these young lives.

But despite their efforts, despite the exceptional needs of the young boys, and despite being the last secure home for children with such vulnerabilities in the capital, the Lodge will soon close. The Youth Justice Board (YJB) has announced that the Lodge's bid to re-tender this year has been unsuccessful. The Glen Care Group, a private firm which runs similar institutions around the country, and bought the Lodge from Southwark Council in March 2006, cannot afford to keep it open.

That means the 16 boys who live here will be transferred elsewhere in England, potentially as far as afield as Southampton or Nottingham, distancing them from their families and entrenching feelings of dislocation and detachment. The closure will entail redundancy for the army of committed carers. The Lodge's self-styled governor, a public servant named Dennis Scotland, feels "very, very downbeat".

"It came as a huge shock," he says, "because this is the last of its kind in London and you just didn't think they would consider it. The service was doing very well, and London needs these provisions. These boys are being packed off to far flung places, for nobody's good."

Frances Done, chair of the Youth Justice Board, told The Independent that the number of beds required in secured children's homes had fallen from 219 to 191 this year, and that in a quality assessment exercise Orchard Lodge was one of four to come bottom.

"We offered transitional funding to them to focus on welfare," Miss Done said. "These places cost over £200,000 a year. We're doing all we can to look after vulnerable children, and minimise travel distances for families."

Mr Scotland, 50, has run Orchard Lodge since October. A father of three children (now grown-up), he has spent two decades working in residential services, for St Christopher's Fellowship, a children's charity and housing association, and as a youth worker in west London. His empathy with the boys is obvious. "There are a number of boys who get caught up in this not because they're bad boys but because these nasty situations are beyond their control. You meet them and you can't believe the crimes they've committed. Some are so sharp, and charming, and kind."

Many of the youngsters sent here self-harm viciously – "there's head-banging, cutting, that kind of thing" – and most have witnessed shocking brutality. One 12-year-old saw his brother's murder. Another received public exposure when he was convicted of involvement in a high-profile gang murder.

Sporting a bling watch and M&S Autograph suit, Mr Scotland is a role model to his residents, many of whom are, like him, black or from ethnic minorities. His authority is augmented by their knowledge of his own troubled childhood. Mr Scotland's mother died in childbirth, and his father committed suicide when he was three. Growing up on Durlston Road in Hackney, east London, he was raised by Jamaican foster parents but was a "demotivated, unsettled loner" at school. He was illiterate at 14. Four years in Jamaica, from 14 to 18, were, he says, his saving.

At a time when politicians talk of Britain's "broken society", Mr Scotland is sceptical of Westminster's glare. "Many of the boys here come from families where there is no structure, boundaries, or order. Some lived on estates where the pressure to join gangs is huge, and several have no father. But while family breakdown is an important factor, it's not the only factor. There are social currents in play, like communities with no resources.

"Politicians who talk about this stuff haven't enough on-the-ground understanding. They operate on another level, quoting all the figures. But to understand this stuff you have to feel it.

"We have a secure provision in London, the last one left, and they're letting us close, jeopardising these boys' future. The impoverished families of these boys are being told they have to go on a 200-mile trip if they want to see their sons. What's tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime about that?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers