Unmet Needs: Children in Custody

Fiachra Byrne

Young People in Custody

Young people held in custody in England and Wales are extremely vulnerable and have complex needs. They can exhibit challenging, harmful, violent and extreme behaviour. Yet, their need for care and support is underlined by their young age, impulsivity, immaturity and difficult childhood experiences. Young people in prison typically have poorer physical health, greater psychiatric morbidity and a higher rate of substance use disorders than their community counterparts. More than a third of children in the Youth Secure Estate have a diagnosed mental health disorder. However, the real figure may be considerably higher as many such children have never received a referral to mental health services.[1]

History of Institutions

The practice of incarcerating children in specialist facilities in England and Wales has a long pedigree, dating back to the establishment of Parkhurst Prison in the Isle of Wight in 1838. Since then, there have been a multitude of institutions for the custodial detention of children, including: industrial schools, reformatories, borstals, remand homes, approved schools, detention centres, attendance centres, community homes with education, secure units, youth treatment centres and youth custody centres. Despite this formidable historical legacy entailing multiple forms of child imprisonment, there’s little evidence that incarceration has ever been a successful strategy in addressing the many needs of such children, least of all those with mental health conditions.

Deaths in Custody

The incarceration of children carries significant health risks. Between 1990 and 2016, some 34 children aged 10 to 17 years died in custody. All but two of these deaths occurred in Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs).[2] Imprisoned boys are some 18 times more likely to commit suicide than children in the community.[3] In 2008, there were some 2,040 incidents of self-harm among children imprisoned in YOIs.[4]

Youth Secure Estate

The Youth Secure Estate in England and Wales is currently made up of three different types of institutions. The decision of where to send children remanded or sentenced to custody is based upon their age, gender, vulnerability and availability of places. Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, are large penal institutions that accommodate boys aged 15-17 years old. Their regimes are proximate to those of adult prisons and they have low staff-to-inmate ratios. About two-thirds of the child custody population are held in YOIs. In Nov 2016, almost half of boys in YOIs reported that they had felt unsafe there at some point.[5]

Secure Training Centres

Secure Training Centres (STCs) are private for profit institutions. They are somewhat smaller than YOIs, and the children held there are, for the most part, younger and more vulnerable. They also enjoy higher staff to inmate ratios. STCs currently house about 20 per cent of the child custody population – a proportion that has grown significantly in recent years. The concept of the STC was first dreamt up by the former Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke in 1993 as a ‘solution’ to apparent problem of the ‘persistent’ juvenile offender. Although education was supposed to be at the core of these institutions, colloquially termed ‘sin bins’, this was belied by the fact that they were directly modelled on the distinctly penal Lisnevin training school in Northern Ireland.[6] The first STC was opened at Medway in 1998 and two more were opened at Rainsbrooke and Hassockfield shortly thereafter. Originally, they were intended for 12-14 year old offenders, but this was extended to 12-17 year olds in April 2000.[7] By 2005, there were 5 STCs in England with places for 274 children. Always controversial, they became particularly mired in scandal over the use of restraint following the death of a 15 year old boy, Gareth Myatt, at Rainsbrook STC in April 2004 while being restrained with a ‘double-seated embrace’.[8] More recently, a Panorama Documentary (Jan., 2016) and the Report of the Medway Improvement Board revealed significant staff mistreatment of children at Medway STC.[9]

Secure Children’s Homes

Secure Children’s Homes are small, local authority-run institutions, with very high staffing levels. They have a strong child-care ethos and accommodate children from 10-12 years of age and other vulnerable children up to 17 years of age.[10] They represent model custodial institutions for children.

Fall in Number of Children in Custody

From the late 1980s, the Youth Secure Estate experienced significant growth with the child custody population in England Wales increasing by 795 per cent from 1989 to 2009.[11] However, it has fallen precipitously since then. The average number of young people in custody was 3,000 in 2007-08 but it was a little over 850 in 2016/2017.[12] Since 2009 more than 2,000 places in YOIs have been decommissioned and 12 YOIs have been closed; Hassockfield STC has closed; and there are now 95 fewer places in SCHs.[13]

Deteriorating Conditions

While this process of decarceration is to be welcomed, the decrease in scale of the Youth Secure Estate Smaller has brought its own problems. As institutions have closed, children are now more likely to be accommodated further from home. Resources to the Youth Secure Estate have been falling in line with falling numbers of children in custody. Moreover, staff at both STCs and YOIs seem to believe that the remaining cohort is comprised of the ‘most persistent and troubled children’.[14] This has been offered as an explanation of deteriorating conditions and violence in these institutions.[15] This assumption lacks validation. As the Youth Justice Improvement Board points out, for this remaining cohort in the Youth Secure Estate, there is currently no consistent information on the severity or types of mental illness they may be suffering from, the efficacy of treatment modalities, or any standard means of assessing of their needs.[16] Nonetheless, as the Taylor Review rightly concluded, ‘many staff working in YOIs and STCs do not have the skills or experience to manage the most vulnerable and challenging young people in their care, nor have they had sufficient training to fulfil these difficult roles.[17]

Not Fit for Purpose

Extraordinarily, the Youth Justice Board accepts that the Youth Secure Estate presently, ‘is not fit for the purpose of caring for or rehabilitating your people’.[18] As partial remedy, the Taylor Review recommended that ‘Secure Schools’ accommodating 60-70 children each should be established on a regional basis to replace both YOIs and STCs. Two pilot secure schools are planned. Conversely the Youth Custody Improvement Board advocates for the creation of new specialist units, such as Keppel Unit at Wetherby YOI, to accommodate the most disruptive 10 per cent in the Youth Secure Estate ‘who could be distinguished as having the most severe mental health needs and would need a different highly tailored approach’.[19]

Secure Schools and Specialist Units

As other commentators have pointed out, the provision of secure schools on the model forwarded by Taylor risks recreating many of the same problems of the STCs. It seems likely that such institutions, given their proposed size, would inevitably have to accent security over the needs of the children confined there. Likewise, specialist units in the YOI, such as Keppel, will inevitably face pressures to accommodate ‘disruptive’ inmates which denatures the selection criteria for such a facility as this becomes determined by the system’s needs rather than that of the child; indeed, there is evidence that a broadening of its admission criteria and reduction in specialist training staff has already taken place at Keppel.[20] While further decarceration should be the goal for a Youth Secure Estate that appears to have little sense of its overall purpose, where detention is deemed absolutely necessary it would make sense to focus resources on the small, intensive residential model of the CSHs run by the local authorities as inspection reports have consistently shown they pose the least risk of harm to vulnerable children.

Image Credit: Chemistry Class in an Approved School. Making Citizens (London, 1946). 


[1] Charlie Taylor, Review of the Youth Justice System in England and Wales (HMSO, 2016), 37.

[2] Kate Gooch, ‘A Childhood Cut Short: Child Deaths in Penal Custody and the Pains of Child Imprisonment’, The Howard Journal, 55, 3 (Sept., 2016), 278.

[3] Standing Committee for Youth Justice, Raising the Custody Threshold (13 August 2010), 11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tim Bateman, ‘Youth Justice News’, Youth Justice, 17, 1 (2017), 92.

[6] John Harding, ‘Secure Training Centres’, Criminal Justice Matters 14, 1 (1993), 20-21; Daily Telegraph, 3 March 1993.

[7] Ann Hagell, ‘Secure Training Centres’, Criminal Justice Matters 41, 1, (2000), 30-31.

[8] Lord Carlille of Berriew, Independent Inquiry into the Use of Physical Restraint, Solitary Confinement and Forcible Strip Searching of Children in Prisons, Secure Training Centres and Local Authority Secure Children’s Homes (Howard League for Penal Reform, 2006).

[9] Medway Improvement Board, Final Report of the Board’s Advice to Secretary of State for Justice (30 March 2016).

[10] ‘Youth Justice News’, (2017), 92.

[11] Raising the Custody Threshold, 2.

[12] Alan Wood, Sue Bailey and Rob Butler, Findings and Recommendations of the Youth Custody Improvement Board (2017), 5.

[13] Review of the Youth Justice System in England and Wales, 36.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Findings and Recommendations of the Youth Custody Improvement Board, 5.

[16] Findings and Recommendations of the Youth Custody Improvement Board, 5-6.

[17] Review of the Youth Justice System in England and Wales, 36.

[18] Findings and Recommendations of the Youth Custody Improvement Board, 2.

[19] Findings and Recommendations of the Youth Custody Improvement Board, 7-8.

[20] Findings and Recommendations of the Youth Custody Improvement Board, 8.

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