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Child prisons in England and Wales ‘significantly more violent’ than adult jails

Prisons holding children are “significantly more violent” than jails holding adult men and most fail to deliver “one meaningful conversation with a child each week”, the chief inspector of prisons said.

Charlie Taylor said that despite the government spending £300,000 for every child in custody a year, levels of violence and self-harm are rising across the youth prison estate in England and Wales.

But he urged the government not to allow the use of pepper spray on incarcerated children – a demand of the Prison Officers Association amid a 28% increase in assaults in the youth estate in the past year – saying it “risks increasing rather than reduce hostility”.

Taylor said two reports out on Tuesday from his inspectorate paint a “bleak picture” of youth custody in England and Wales.

The Children in custody 2022-23 report, which interviewed children aged 12 to 18 in secure training centres (STCs) and young offender institutions (YOIs), found that children continued to spend far too long alone in their cells. Just 46% of children reported feeling cared for by staff, and 32% of children did not have a single member of staff they trusted to help them if they had a problem.

“Despite employing hundreds of staff and dozens of managers, most sites are unable to deliver one meaningful conversation with each child a week. Given these circumstances it is unsurprising that most do not feel cared for by staff and few are motivated to behave well,” wrote Taylor.

In Cookham Wood YOI, inspectors found that out of 77 boys, 20 were locked in “what was effectively solitary confinement”, Taylor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “Two boys had been locked in their cells for nearly 100 days with barely any human contact at all. The idea that this is going to rehabilitate people – that it’s going to make them able to stop committing offences when they come out – is simply fanciful.”

An inspection of Werrington YOI, also published on Tuesday, found that serious disorder had increased by 76% over the past year, with multiple incidents requiring the deployment of national resources. This included groups of boys trying to smash through doors to get to other children.

Taylor said: “The youth estate is significantly more violent than prisons holding adult men. We are storing up real problems for the future by failing to help children learn better ways to manage frustration and conflict and giving them access to the education many of them have missed out on in their lives before they were incarcerated.”

While levels of staffing are a problem in adult prisons, children’s establishments are “richly resourced”, said Taylor. Werrington employs 340 staff to care for just 89 children, though half of frontline officers were unavailable for duties at the time of inspection “because they were unwell or had been injured in the course of their work”, he said.

The youth custody estate is “not short of cash”, Taylor told the BBC, saying the government spent “about £300,000 per child per year to keep them locked up”.

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The rising levels of violence has prompted the Prison Officers Association to lobby the government on allowing the use of Pava or pepper spray in youth custody. Taylor said he had “serious concerns” about its introduction and would worsen the already “poor trust” between staff and children. “The idea of adding something as drastic as Pava into the mix, which risks increasing rather than reduce hostility, is a very worrying step in the wrong direction,” he wrote.

The average population of children and young people held in STCs and YOIs was 434 in 2022–23, compared with 939 in 2015–16.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The number of children in custody has fallen by 79%since 2010 as a result of early intervention work and the wider use of robust community sentences.”

They said those children that remain “have often committed the most serious offences and have exceptionally complex needs”. They added that the MoJ were “recruiting a specialist youth justice workforce trained to work with extremely vulnerable children”.

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