Descent into violence: Staff cuts leave young inmates at each other’s mercy

When authorities locked down Cookham Woods young offenders' institute recently, they found 35 weapons. Violence has started to define the institution – not just between the teenage boys they hold there, but also from the staff who guard them.

The number of recorded violent attacks in the institute is high and it is rising. There's evidence of concerted attacks on individuals. They're targeted by multiple assailants, some of them with weapons. They are kicked and their heads are stamped on. Incidents resulting in serious injury are common. Initiatives which proved useful in challenging the perpetrators and supporting victims have lapsed. "Ill-thought government policies mean that the prison system cannot keep children safe," Howard League chief executive Frances Crook says. "This is a new low."

The use of force by staff is high. Prison inspectors, who conducted an unannounced inspection in June and published it this morning, were critical of whether it was always necessary. They wrote:

"We were not confident that all spontaneous incidents of use of force were justified, particularly when force, sometimes including the use of pain infliction, was used to gain compliance from children. Oversight of the use of force was poor and too many documents had not been completed. Debriefs were not always detailed enough."

When you collect 15-18-year-old boys who have been sentenced or put on remand and stuff them in one institution, there's going to be some fighting. It's almost impossible to imagine an institution like that without some level of it. But there are things you can do to reduce it.

One of those things, which Cookham Wood is doing, is splitting boys into smaller groups. The new accommodation is comprised of discreet landings which hold about 30 people. "There was the capacity to create smaller, more supportive communities within the wider prison that we have seen work well," Nick Hardwick, the prisons inspector said.

As a rule of thumb: Smaller is better in prisons. When applied to the institution, it keeps them local, so inmates can stay in contact with friends and family. This does more to prevent reoffending than almost anything else you can think of. That's one of the reasons why inspectors praised the presence of telephones in cells, which allow "vulnerable boys to keep in touch with family and support networks". There also appears to be some psychological effect to smaller groups: it's safer and you can develop a personal relationship between staff and inmate.

All of which begs the question of why the coalition is pushing ahead with plans for one big teenage Titan prison near Leicester by 2017.

But that's not the only instance of the Ministry of Justice running against the grain of what works. Once again, all the evidence from Cookham Wood is that Chris Grayling's interferences have proved decidedly ill-advised. The inspector's report is clear:

"Organisational restructuring has impacted all prisons and has led to staff shortages followed by significant challenges in the ability to recruit and replace staff. Both factors explain to an extent why there has been some deterioration in safety and stalled progress in other areas."

A restricted regime has been put in operation as a result of staff shortages, meaning boys are spending more and more time in their cells. In Cookham Wood it is actually better than in many prisons. Boys spending just two hours out their cell are a minority. In many other institutions that's the default.

Regardless, children aren't given enough time in the open air and there are limited opportunities for physical exercise. It sounds a small thing, but a good way to prevent violence is to give young people plenty of opportunities to blow off steam. Keeping them pent up in a cell without an outlet is not helpful.

We can also see the effect of the centralised disciplinary system Grayling has introduced. One of the coalition's supposed mission statements is to devolve power down, away from central government, to individual institutions and providers – be they schools or GPs. This has not been the case in prisons, where Grayling has started handing down rules from on high to be applied across the prison estate, not least in the form of last November's incentives and earned privileges scheme. This takes away control from people on the ground and hands it to the secretary of state.

In Cookham Wood this has created a two-tier disciplinary system. "The use of an incentives and earned privileges scheme alongside a rewards and sanctions scheme was confusing and sometimes resulted in the same behaviour being dealt with by different sanctions," inspectors found. Staff preferred their yellow card system, but without proper oversight it was used unfairly and inconsistently. Staff also took to posting notices about sanctions on teenagers' doors, which inspectors branded "unnecessary and stigmatising".

The cutting of staff numbers, combined with a centralised regulation system from Whitehall, are obstacles in the way of minimising violence in young offenders institutes. Once again, we find that measures which work are cast aside and measures which don't are pursued with vigour.

Michael Spurr, chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), commented:

"As the chief inspector acknowledges, Cookham Wood manages a challenging population and has been through a difficult period of restructuring and change.

"The new accommodation, which is now in use, provides much better facilities to manage young people safely and to support their rehabilitation.

"The governor is actively tackling violence within the prison. Staff are being provided with additional training in behaviour management and all serious incidents are being referred to the police. Use of force has reduced and we are actively recruiting new staff to fill vacancies.

"This action will ensure that Cookham Wood is able to provide a safe and positive regime for the young people in its care."