UK: surge in youth prison violence sparks call to close institutions

Assaults in youth prisons in England and Wales have risen by almost two-thirds over the last five years, a Guardian analysis has found.

Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults rose by 43% and assaults on staff more than doubled, prompting fears the government is failing to respond to a growing crisis in youth prisons.

Assault incidents per 1,000 prisoners in youth estates, including immigration removal centres, rose from 1,908 in the year to December 2013 to 3,102 in the year to December 2018. Assaults on staff per 1,000 prisoners increased from 321 to 824, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice.

Over the same period, staffing at youth offending institutes, including immigration removal centres, fell by 25%, but from March 2018 to March 2019 an extra 300 staff members were added to youth estates.

In May a prisons inspectorate report on Feltham prison said self-harm, use of force and levels of violence had increased significantly since the last inspection. It said 47% of boys there spent no more than two hours a day out of their cell on weekdays and 75% on weekends.

The shadow justice secretary, Richard Burgon, said the significant increase in violence in youth custody was “extremely disturbing”.

He said: “Holding young people in conditions where violence against inmates and staff is routine undermines not only their rehabilitation but ends up leaving our society less safe. Instead of offering excuses, the Tories must immediately put forward an emergency plan to make the youth estate safe for staff and inmates.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are grateful for the continued hard work of our staff. We will never tolerate violence against them and will always push for the strongest possible punishment.”

“The number of young people entering the youth justice system continues to decline and as a result a higher number of those in custody have complex needs and might be prone to violence. We have responded to this by putting 400 frontline staff through degree-level specialist training and have employed additional psychologists and support staff to ensure the most vulnerable children are managed appropriately.”

Prison reform campaigners rejected the suggestion that the rise of assaults was down to the changing needs of young prisoners and called for these institutions to be closed down.

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The government’s own figures show that the total number of assaults recorded in prisons holding children has rocketed while the number of children held in them has fallen significantly. To suggest that this alarming statistic has anything to do with a change in the cohort is misleading.”

“There have always been children with complex needs and damaged backgrounds in prison. Prison has always been used to hold damaged children. The correct interpretation of the figures is that these children require skilled support rather than being locked up behind a metal door for hours on end with little intervention or care.”

Carolyne Willow, the director of Article 39, a children’s rights charity, said high staff turnover and children being locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day “inevitably leads to behaviour problems.

She said: “It is ridiculous for the Ministry of Justice to suggest that child prisons are failing to protect children because they have fewer children to look after. This just doesn’t stand up to intelligent scrutiny.”

“When numbers of children in prison were sky-rocketing, the same narratives were pushed out about children being complex and troublesome. The plain truth is that children respond to appalling living conditions and lack of sustained, expert care. It’s time for these institutions to be closed. They cannot be saved.”

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