“We don’t call them cells, we call them rooms.” That’s what a prison officer said to me as she showed me around a young offender’s cell, with his makeshift curtains and attempt to brighten up the bare walls around him by colour coordinating his cereal boxes and snacks. But whether we call them cells or rooms, the stark reality is that under the Tories, outcomes for children in custody are dismal and child prisons are failing miserably.
Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions have long been hitting headlines for their plummeting standards and closures. Medway, Oakhill and Rainsbrook are all infamous for surges of violence and self-harm, abuse and neglect. Young offenders languish in cells for 23 hours a day, hundreds allege abuse and gang violence erupts frequently.
And it’s all shamefully propped up by this Conservative government. A government that rewards failing private provider G4S with a contract to run a new mega prison, HMP Five Wells, despite the Inspectorate’s warning of serious failings at Oakhill. A government for which youth justice is an afterthought. Neither the current Justice Secretary nor his predecessor have bothered to visit a single institution in the country in the last 18 months.
After a decade of Tory austerity, stripping communities of vital youth services and hollowing out the youth justice system, reoffending rates are still higher than ten years ago, young people are getting sucked back into criminal behaviour and our communities are less safe.
That’s why it is unforgivable that this Conservative government has squandered over £100m of taxpayers’ money in over a decade procuring Secure Children’s Homes beds in England and Wales that lie empty. That is despite them providing the highest standard of care and rehabilitation, and despite the crisis of conditions in youth custody.
Five years ago, the government acknowledged, in addition to their dismal record of preventing crime and reoffending, that child prisons couldn’t keep young offenders safe. It committed to phasing them out and moving towards Secure Schools – environments like Secure Children’s Homes, which offer a safe, locked environment focusing on rehabilitation and education, only inferior.
Yet Labour’s new analysis reveals that in 2021 alone over 48% of beds procured by the Ministry of Justice stood empty, at a significant cost to the taxpayer of £14.1m. Money poured down the drain that could have been better spent on driving down youth re-offending, improving custody conditions and on keeping our communities safe.
This high-on-tax, soft-on-crime Conservative government may talk tough, but in reality has cut youth and crime prevention by 70% in real terms – meaning young people get caught up in crime and reoffending. This government is standing idly by while violence and bad behaviour in child prisons spiral out of control, exposing children to risk factors that see them up to 20 times more likely to reoffend than if they were placed in safer environments.
This government may also talk tough about rehabilitation, but it is denying people an opportunity to get their lives back on track. Secure Children’s Homes are the only viable option to ensure offenders are rehabilitated, yet half of the beds are sitting empty.
And when over half of children in youth custody come from Black or ethnic minority backgrounds, but three quarters of children in Secure Children’s Homes are white, this government is clearly failing to tackle racial disparities or give Black or ethnic minority children the same opportunity to turn their lives around.
This is a shameful position to be in five years after announcing that child prisons are unsafe and unfit for purpose, and five years after the Lammy Review’s recommendations to improve outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system. This government must now step up and do more to stop children from becoming the adult criminals of tomorrow.
Labour is calling for a rethink on the government’s failed approach to youth custody and to commission an independent review to fix the crisis it has created. The government must stop throwing taxpayers’ money down the drain and start investing in the rehabilitation needed to ensure young offenders don’t fall back into a life of crime.
It’s easy for us to add the youth justice system to the Tories’ file of failure. But behind every statistic is a young person being failed by the system or a community paying the high social price of reoffending.