This week in a major policy shift, Kenneth Clarke the Conservative Justice Secretary announced that the intention to reduce the numbers of people in prison in England and Wales by embarking on a ‘rehabilitation revolution’. Cost-savings are part of the rationale to reduce prison numbers, which have grown exponentially in England and Wales since the 1990s when Michael Howard, one of Clarke’s predecessor infamously declared that ‘prison works’. Whether a reduction in prison numbers will lead to a reinvestment in other services is unclear. The Youth Justice Board in England and Wales have recently announced that the numbers of young people in custody has reduced significantly  – they attribute this to the success of early intervention and prevention programmes, others disagree. Rod Morgan, the former Head of the YJB has more persuasively argued that the reduction in numbers is more likely the result of a change in policing targets. Whatever the reason,  a new report published by the Howard League for Penal Reform has revealed that conditions for young people detained  in Young Offender Institutions has not improved despite the fall in prison numbers.T he Howard League has found that despite a 22 per cent reduction in the total number of children in custody over the last three years, the reduction has not been used as an opportunity to lower the proportion housed in young offender institutions, the most basic form of custody for children.  The charity said that the fact that three quarters of children reoffend on release from prison shows that poor treatment exacerbates crime.

The verdict of the young people we talked to was that prison was failing to help them.  As one young person told us,“prison doesn’t do anything for you.  They just hold you, feed you and give you somewhere to sleep”.

Life inside 2010: A unique insight into the day to day experiences of 15-17 year old males in prison is the first policy report to be published as part of the U R Boss project, supported by the Big Lottery Fund.  The report was developed in conjunction with young people currently in custody and released into the community.  Through a series of workshops and one to one work, young people identified the topic of this report, the issues they wanted discussed and key lessons for policy makers and practitioners.

Standards of education in prison received particular criticism from the young people working with the Howard League.  Young people described how education “is really poor in prisons”, where “all they do is pull out bits of paper and make people copy them”. Those young people who had been in prison for longer periods described how “before we used to get 25 hours of education [a week], but now because of budget cuts we just get 15.”

The young people highlight numerous other failings in prisons, including:

  • Automatic strip-searching on arrival to prison despite this being the most vulnerable time for children entering custody
  • Failure to receive a daily shower
  • A failure to achieve targets allowing children time out of cell
  • Poor relations with staff due to staff ratios as low as three staff to every 60 young people
  • Endemic violence and bullying where “the environment in prisons doesn’t make you want to achieve anything….Everything’s about violence”.
  • A disproportionate use of physical restraint and use of segregation where “Young people come out more violent.  You can’t tell what it’s done to them.”
  • Failures in the quality and quantity of food resulting in poor concentration in classes and an adverse effect on behaviour
  • Young people reporting an average cost of 65p a minute for phone calls to family and a lack of family visits due to the distance children are jailed from their homes

A failure to engage children in their sentence planning, resulting in meetings that involve “a bunch of people arguing over things they can’t control”

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