Wednesday, November 22, 2017

This is an article about Youth Prisons in the UK which I feel passionate about and agree with the writer from the depth of my soul.

Youth prisons don’t deter criminals. They enable them

Young offender institutions are cruel and counterproductive. Cressida Dick’s call for ‘harsher’ sentencing reveals her ignorance of the evidence
In 2003 I visited Feltham young offender institution for the first time. Freshly returned from death row in America, I was feeling smug about civilised Britain. I walked down a concrete corridor with no walls – just bars – the wind whipping through a derelict garden with a small pond where a plastic heron lay prone, beak down in the sludge. Then, an enormous, brightly lit visitors’ room with tables nailed to the floor, and in the corner a holding cell, three sides of which were glass, holding at least 10 children. None of them were talking.
I had never been in an environment so eerily quiet. Anyone who has spent any time in schools knows that kids are noisy. Yet here were 10 teenagers sitting together, and none of them had anything to say.
In my years working as a lawyer visiting Feltham, I heard many distressing stories. There was the child who, when he was first incarcerated, was sick all night, with no adult coming to help him clear it up or see if he was OK. There was the child who witnessed guards unlocking the cells to enable a gang to attack another child in the shower. I heard of professionals visiting the medical wing to see severely disturbed children, sometimes naked, being held in glass cells. One teenager – who had nine GCSEs – told me that the only education they received was a wordsearch.
So I wasn’t surprised when Panorama revealed last year that there were high levels of violence and use of force at the G4S-run Medway secure training centre, a detention centre for younger and more vulnerable teenagers than are held at Feltham. Nor was I surprised when, in July 2017, the chief inspector of prisons said that youth custody centres in England and Wales were so unsafe that a “tragedy” was “inevitable”, and that “not a single establishment inspected was safe to hold young people”.
I was, however, surprised to hear Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan police commissioner, say in a speech at the AGM of prison reform charity the Howard League this month that teenage law-breakers should face “harsher and more effective” prison sentences that were a “real deterrent to criminals”.
Not only is this false, it also shows Dick to be ignorant of the extensive academic evidence. Prison, as it exists in the UK and other western countries including the US, has never been effective in preventing future crimes. In fact my experience suggests the opposite. I believe that in this country youth prisons are the perfect environment for children to fall further into criminality, whether it is by failing to educate them, teaching them to protect themselves from violence, enabling them to develop gang relationships, or failing to provide support upon their release.
I can confidently say that most of the young people I have worked with, over nearly 15 years, had a harder time breaking the cycle of crime after a spell in custody than those who remained in the community. The latter were reintegrated by having their needs addressed, be they mental health problems or issues with education, peer groups or immigration status.
If the institutions that Dick was suggesting we send children to had successful education programmes, staff who were trained and qualified to work with young people, therapeutic support and reintegration programmes, there might be some debate to be had about the length of sentences. There are places where these type of institutions exist, such as Spain, which has the Diagrama re-education centre (which would like to move into the UK); or Norway, where there are therapeutic units. Both models state that their role is to help return children to the community in a better position than when they came in.
But these models are expensive and we are in a time of austerity. It is impossible to envisage this government committing the resources required to ensure that troubled and complex adolescents get the support they require.
The number of children incarcerated in the UK has gone down, from 3,000 in 2007 to around 860 today. And that is a good thing. If there is anything we can learn from the Panorama documentary, it is that the cost to the taxpayer of a bed at Medway far exceeds the cost of a bed at Feltham; and while that was undoubtedly good for the shareholders at G4S, it was not for the children held there. A profit-based model of incarceration will measure success in profit. Only a therapeutic model will judge itself on therapeutic outcomes.
Carolyne Willow, the director of the charity Article 39, recently wrote a book called Children Behind Bars. When we met, she told me one thing that, among the stories of sanctioned violence, regular strippings and deprivation of human contact, has stayed with me. It was that a parent is never allowed to see the space that their incarcerated child has been living and sleeping in, unless their child dies. Any therapist in the world will tell you that positive family relationships lead to better lives. Yet only after a death in custody is a parent given access to their child’s day-to-day environment.
The state-enforced removal of a child has never sounded more cruel. In William Shakespeare’s Richard III, when her children were locked in the Tower of London, Queen Elizabeth, wife of King Edward IV, said: “Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes / Whom envy hath immur’d within your walls – / Rough cradle for such little pretty ones.”
Over 500 years of social progress have passed, and yet when it comes to locking up children, it seems we are still in the same place.
Shauneen Lambe is joint chief executive of Just for Kids Law