Prisons inspector warns of 'staggering' decline in safety at youth jails
There has been a “staggering” decline in standards and safety at youth jails in England and Wales, the chief inspector of prisons has said.
Peter Clarke, the former Metropolitan police head of counter-terrorism, said no young offender institution or privately run secure training centre officially inspected in early 2017 was safe to hold children and young people.
His annual report said assaults and self-harm rates were running at double the level of six years ago and, while the reasons for the drop in standards were likely to be complex: “The current state of affairs is dangerous, counterproductive and will inevitably end in tragedy unless urgent corrective action is taken.”
Following the revelations about the mistreatment of children at Medway secure training centre in Kent, Clarke inspected other prisons holding 764 children in February and was so shocked by the findings that he raised them privately with ministers.
“In early 2017, I felt compelled to bring to the attention of ministers my serious concerns about the findings in the youth estate. By February 2017, we concluded that there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people. This is the first time this has been the case,” he said.
“The speed of decline has been staggering. There seems to have been something of a vicious circle. Violence leads to a restrictive regime and security measures that in turn frustrate those being held there. We have seen regimes where boys take every meal alone in their cell, where they are locked up for excessive amounts of time, where they do not get enough exercise, education or training, and where they do not have any credible plans to break the cycle of violence.”
The Ministry of Justice responded to his private warning by announcing that a new youth custody service – a distinct arm of the Prison Service – would take over the running of the youth estate, but Clarke said only time would tell if this could improve the situation. Since February, Clarke said, he has inspected one young offender institution that was rated reasonably good, but “there is an awful long way to go”.
The chief inspector’s assessment of adult prisons found a 38% increase in assaults on staff, suicides doubling since 2013 to 113, and 21 out of 29 local and training prisons rated poor or not sufficiently good for safety.
He says prison reform will not succeed unless the violence and prevalence of drugs in jail are addressed and prisoners are unlocked for more of the working day. Staffing levels in many jails are too low to keep order and maintain standards, he reports, with drugs, debt, bullying and self-segregation by prisoners looking to avoid violence commonplace. One in five prisoners have developed a drug habit.
“I have often been appalled by conditions in which we hold many prisoners. Far too often I have seen men sharing a cell in which they are locked up for as much as 23 hours a day, in which they are required to eat all their meals, and in which there is an unscreened lavatory,” Clarke said.
“On several occasions, prisoners have pointed out insect and vermin infestations to me. In many prisons I have seen shower and lavatory facilities that are filthy and dilapidated, but with no credible or affordable plans for refurbishment. I have seen many prisoners who are obviously under the influence of drugs.” The chief inspector added that he had personally witnessed violence among prisoners.
The situation is most acute in youth jails and at local and training prisons, with conditions better in women’s prisons and the high-security estate, Clarke said. But he added that change was overdue and described the loss of the prison reform bill after the June general election as a setback.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the safety and welfare of every young person in custody was their “absolute” priority: “We are clear that more needs to be done to achieve this. But we also want custody to improve the life chances of children in our care and to deliver improvements to education and health services within youth custody.
“That’s why we have created a new youth custody service, with an executive director for the first time in the department’s history – to make sure this vital area is given the priority and weight it deserves. The new director will lead on reforms to the running of the youth estate, including boosting the number of frontline staff by 20% - all of whom will be specially trained to work in the youth estate,” they added.
This is what Rob Allen has to say on the matter in his latest blog post:-
Prisons - a Collective Failure?
As part of the celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, today has seen efforts to promote the rules bearing his name which seek to establish minimum standards for the world’s prisons. The first of these rules states that “the safety and security of prisoners, staff, service providers and visitors shall be ensured at all times”.
How shameful therefore that today also saw the Chief Inspector of Prisons publish a damning indictment of the prison system in England and Wales. A year ago, in his 2015-16 report, Peter Clarke found that too many prisons had become violent and dangerous places. Far from seeing improvements since then, things have got even worse with “startling increases in all types of violence”. Surely, it is - or should be - a national scandal that there was not a single establishment that Clarke inspected in 2016-17 in which it was safe to hold children and young people.
There may be some satisfaction but limited value in allocating blame for what is in truth a collective failure over the last seven years. Successive Justice Secretaries since 2010 should carry the bulk of the can. In the Coalition years, Kenneth Clarke made a gung- ho financial settlement with the Treasury which he failed to adjust when his plans to reduce the size of the prison population crashed and burned. His successor, Chris Grayling focussed on making the prison system “cheaper not smaller” by allowing it to remain largely publicly run in return for reckless staff reductions. The Lib Dem Coalition partners were silent throughout.
Post 2015 when prison reform allegedly became a top social justice priority, Michael Gove was allowed to pontificate endlessly while conditions in jail continued to deteriorate. It’s perhaps only been Liz Truss who came close to recognising the scale of the crisis and started to get staff back on the landings.
There are questions too for the senior officials in the Ministry of Justice who could arguably have put more obstacles on the path to destruction. Exactly ten years ago, the Labour government were forced to release prisoners 18 days early to combat overcrowding. Ministers took flak for the End of Custody Licence Scheme but had been told by officials that the system couldn’t cope without it. One would like to think today’s generation of prison bosses at least suggested something similar. The Youth Justice Board too fell asleep at the wheel of the children’s secure estate and has now been relieved of those duties.
In truth, there are uncomfortable questions about the arrangements as a whole. Can a monitoring system said to be working when most Inspectorate recommendations are not achieved, and the Ombudsman finds prisons unable to learn lessons from his reports? It is dispiriting that pre 2017 election plans to strengthen monitoring bodies and require a response to what they say have been scrapped.
On the wider front, the Justice Committee has found it hard to hold ministers to account in Parliament. Perhaps like some of civil society they have been taken in by the grandiose rhetoric around prison reform. While looking at the stars they have forgotten that prisons are in the gutter. Today’s report did not merit an urgent question or statement in the House of Commons.
Peter Clarke says, without conviction, that he hopes sharper responses to his Inspectorate reports can be realised through administrative directions. For all our sakes, a much more comprehensive set of answers are required to the grave charges he makes in his annual report.