Youth prisons in ‘meltdown’

The number of young people in custody is reaching crisis point and government must take urgent action to avoid a “meltdown”, the Youth Justice Board has warned.

Board chairman Rod Morgan has today joined forces with the chief inspector of prisons and the children’s commissioner to call for fewer young offenders to be locked up.

More than 3,350 children and youth people are being held in custody in England and Wales, a record high that is putting increasing strain on the prison network.

“The youth justice system has just a handful of bed spaces left,” said Professor Morgan.

“We can’t simply put up a sign saying ‘No Vacancies’. Action is urgently needed to stop custody for young people going into meltdown.”

The Home Office said custody for under-18s was a “last resort” and of the 190,000 young people dealt with by police and the courts each year, only four per cent were jailed.

A spokesman also insisted that over the past six years, the facilities for juveniles had been “transformed”, with the introduction of new standards such as minimum periods out of cell and a greater emphasis on education, training and the development of social skills.

However, speaking as he visited Feltham young offenders institute in west London, Professor Morgan warned the rise in the custodial population was causing some of these rules to be broken.

He claims dozens of young people from London are being held as far afield as south Yorkshire and the Scottish borders – despite rules saying they must be held within 50 miles from home, to allow family visits.

And he warned that in bursting prisons, more and more young people had to share cells, incidents of self-harm and suicide increased, it was harder for young offenders to complete training and crime reduction courses, and disorder was more likely.

The Youth Justice Board, prisons chief Anne Owers and children’s commissioner Al Aynsley-Green today called for the government and courts to make better use of intensive supervision community sentences, which could play a “major role” in cutting reoffending.

“Every time I go into a custodial establishment, I see staff achieving amazing things in difficult circumstances with highly troubled young people. But I fear the system is approaching breaking point,” said Ms Owers.

“And I am particularly concerned about the number of young people with mental illness who end up in our prisons because of the lack of adequate provision outside.”

Professor Aynsley-Green added: “Custody is not effective in preventing crime. It is costly and does enormous damage to children who are, for the most part, already extremely vulnerable.

“It fails to offer children the support they need to rehabilitate and change their behaviour. . . Shutting children away in prison sends a message that we are giving up on them. If progress is to be made, we need to tackle the root causes of crime.”