Children in prison are being denied access to education and therapy because they are locked in their cells while skilled and enthusiastic professionals wait for them in empty rooms, the prisons watchdog has warned.
Difficulties getting 15-18-year-old boys at Cookham Wood young offender institution (YOI) out of cells to attend the wide range of group-based services available due to staff shortages led to a “significant waste of resources”, a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) said.
Between April and June 2017, 40 per cent of planned groups had been cancelled due to the “poor regime and delays in movements”, which left professionals waited in empty rooms for boys to arrive, according to the report.
While the report notes that once boys were at education the provision was “good” and the curriculum met the needs of learners, it states that time out of cell was "inadequate" and regime curtailments and unlock procedures "hindered access to important services and support".
It adds: “Leadership and management of learning, skills and work required improvement. Attendance was poor. Punctuality had improved but was still not good enough.”
The prison told the inspectorate that, on average, boys spent about 19-and-a-half hours a day locked inside their cells – and inspectors said that a significant number of boys were locked up for even longer.
Inspectors also found the prison had become less safe and more violent since the previous inspection in 2016, with “little evidence of an effective strategy to reduce violence”. One in four boys reported having felt unsafe – a figure which had more than doubled since the last inspection.
Levels of violence and incidents of self-harm, two of the key indicators of safety, had increased. Some serious incidents of violence also went without punishment due to the amount of adjudication hearings that were not proceeded with, the report said.
Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons said while he didn’t underestimate the risks presented by some of the boys at the establishment, some of the unlock procedures were “unnecessarily cumbersome and created further delays to an already curtailed regime”.
“The main prison regime was also poor and unpredictable. The lack of time out of cell restricted access to education, interventions and meaningful interaction with staff and other boys," Mr Clarke added.
“What was perhaps most unforgivable was that there were many skilled staff and partners who were keen to work with boys to help them progress but their efforts were frustrated by the failure to unlock boys on time, if at all. We were told by numerous professionals that this was not uncommon.”
In light of the findings, campaigners said the regime was “damaging” children and accused the Government presiding over a “deepening crisis” in the imprisonment of young offenders by failing to act on repeated warnings.
Richard Burgon MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, described the report as being “yet another shocking report into a failing system”, adding: “It is a national scandal that children in custody are being held in unsafe conditions where levels of violence and self-harm are not only high but increasing.
“We cannot turn young offenders' lives around if we can’t even keep them safe or get them out of their cells for long enough to get to classes. Last year the Chief Inspector found that not a single young offender institution inspected was deemed safe.
“This report shows the Government is not only failing to turn this around, but it is presiding over a deepening crisis.”
The Howard League for Penal Reform said the advice line for children and young people in custody received more than 100 enquiries in the last year either from or on behalf of children in Cookham Wood, including a 15-year-old boy with significant mental health problems who was locked in his cell all day on Christmas Day and allowed only one exercise session between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
The charity's legal team which runs the advice line have also been made aware of children being unable to get clean clothes, and that a significant number of children had been held in conditions of solitary confinement, denied access to education and gym.
Howard League research has found that more than 1,000 days of additional imprisonment were imposed on children in Cookham Wood following disciplinary hearings, known as adjudications, in 2016 – a 35 per cent rise from the previous year.
Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League, said: “No child is safe in Cookham Wood prison. Violence is rife. Staff are resorting to draconian punishments. It is shocking that boys as young as 15 are being held in such conditions.
“I visited the prison myself less than two weeks ago, and I was very disappointed to find boys were being locked up all day. Unsurprisingly, the inspectors found the same – teenagers with nothing to do, staring at bare walls for days on end.
“When I visited, the quality of the food was awful. Children were being given a very impoverished diet, so they were supplementing it by buying sweets and biscuits. This is a prison regime that lacks affection and kindness and imagination and skill. It is damaging children.”
Overall, Mr Clarke said: “A new governor had been appointed just weeks before our visit. We were encouraged by his optimism and plans to address the issues we have highlighted in our report. Cookham Wood retains many redeeming features, not least an extended team of enthusiastic staff with a wide range of skills.
“They now need to focus on ensuring that boys can access the services they need to progress.”
Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of Her Majesty’s Prisons and Probation Service, said: “Regrettably, staffing shortages did affect the regime we were able to provide for boys at Cookham Wood, which is why we prioritised the recruitment of staff last year.
“As the Chief Inspector points out, the quality of teaching and learning provision is good, and we were able to provide greater access to education and training prior to the inspection.
“More Officers are now in post, with additional recruits in training, and with these new staff in place, the Governor will be able to provide a more consistent regime, reduce violence and provide better support for the young people in his care.”
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