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Penal excess, Prison, Young people

Secure colleges: A dangerous solution to children in trouble

Plans for a new secure college in Leicestershire have been put on hold over the election period. The Reclaim Justice Network is urging all parliamentary candidates to commit to permanently shelving these plans after the general election. 

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New plans for secure colleges, set out by the coalition government, claim that re-organising youth custodial arrangements will improve outcomes and reduce costs. Whilst the latter is most likely the case, the former has no clear evidence base.  Moreover, the plans suggest that secure colleges will be little more than mega-prisons for children.

Particular concerns about secure colleges that the Reclaim Justice Network (RJN) are aiming to raise awareness of include the following:

  • Secure colleges will take young people between the ages of 12-17 who would previously have been allocated to one of three different types of establishments: secure children’s homes, secure training centres (STCs) or young offenders’ institutions (YOIs). Secure colleges, by contrast, will aim to hold all these children in a single institution, which is understood from previous experiments in youth custody to increase the risk of harm between different age groups of young people.
  • It is planned that up to 320 young people will be held in a single secure college.
  • There is no evidence that staffing levels will be high enough to care for this number of young people concentrated in a single institution.
  • Children who spend even a few months in institutional facilities face a number of risks, the effects and traumas of which may endure well beyond their release, including: risk of verbal, physical and/or sexual abuse whilst in custody, delayed or distorted social and emotional development, stigmatisation, and risk of suicide and self-harm. As children with pre-existing complex needs, their vulnerability to these risks is compounded.
  • Those with practice knowledge in the field of youth justice have argued that over the last few years, Youth Offending Team (YOT) case-loads have dropped significantly [YOTs are community-based multi-agency teams who work at diverting young people from custody or supporting them in the community once they return]. Whilst the reason for the reduction in youth crime is debated, what is agreed is that the relatively small numbers of young people who continue to enter the youth justice system are those with extremely complex needs and therefore require intensive support.  There is no recognition of how the complex needs of young people in trouble will be met within secure colleges and the arguable (and relative) success of YOTs suggests that these needs can be better met within communities by supporting and working closely with young people and their families/supporters.
  • Based on the changes that have taken place in the adult prison system under the coalition government, it might be argued that secure colleges might be better understood as mega-prisons for children. The proposals suggest a focus on ‘cost-effectiveness’ over quality of services or children-centred approaches.  Thus, these institutions will, in all likelihood, become warehouses for troubled children with little in the way of the one-to-one support that these young people desperately need.
  • The plans appear to favour a ‘concentration’ model of custody for children, where young people from all over the country are housed in a small number of very large institutions – far from their families and communities.
  • Studies on desistance, youth development, and risk reduction in relation to criminal activity (especially violence) all concur that strong family (or other community) relationships, supported integration into social life, and (where needed) family or other intensive multi-systemic interventions are the best and most effective means for diverting young people away from crime.
  • There is no evidence base that the institutionalisation of children within security-focused environments helps reduce reoffending. In fact, a long history of youth custody experiments, in multiple countries, suggests the opposite.  Indeed, when it works it is exceptional, not the common experience for most young people who are significantly damaged, often hardened and effectively de-socialised by their prison experiences.
  • Concentrating large numbers of children inside under-staffed, under-funded and anti-social institutions will never be an effective solution for a society that wants to reduce the numbers of young people in trouble.

Please oppose the building of secure colleges in your area.

Discussion

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  1. Pingback: Secure Colleges – What could possibly go wrong? | Reclaim Justice Network - April 14, 2015

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