Socialist Worker

Justice system is making criminals out of children

by Esme Choonara
Issue No. 2153

The planned closure of four secure children’s homes (SCHs) in England is part of a worrying trend that is putting more vulnerable children at risk of harm.

The Youth Justice Board, which is responsible for children in the criminal justice system, is to reduce the number of places it funds in SCHs from 219 to 191 as part of a cost cutting exercise.

This mean that homes in London, Norwich, Exeter and Hull will close at the end of June.

Closing these homes will mean more children placed in mainstream prisons with less support, often far from their family or resettlement workers.

The closures mark the continuation of a frightening trend of criminalising and locking up children – who are often disturbed or in distress – rather than offering them support and help.

There are more than 2,600 people under the age of 18 locked up in Britain – the vast majority of them in young offenders institutes, which are basically prisons.

The majority of these institutes are attached to adult prisons.

In addition around 230 children are locked up in privately run secure training centres.

SCHs are smaller units – with between six and 40 beds in each home – and offer more support to children than either of these types of child prison.

SCHs have a staff ratio of between two staff to five children and three staff to eight children.

This contrasts to young offenders institutes where there can be as few as three staff responsible for up to 60 young people.

No child has ever died in an SCH whereas there have been 30 deaths in other child prisons since 1990.

These deaths included 14 year old Adam Rickwood who hanged himself in 2004 after being forcibly restrained by staff in a secure training centre 116 miles from his home.

The trend to close SCHs and move children into larger, more punitive prisons is likely to continue if new plans to create young offenders academies are implemented.

The academies would contain custodial places for 75 children as well as training facilities and a pupil referral unit.


The extension of the privatised or voluntary sector-run academy model into criminal justice is a worrying prospect. It would most likely lead to more contracts for the private companies that are already running the secure training centres.

But this misses the real issue. The question to ask is not “What is the best way to lock up children?” but “Why they are there in the first place?”.

Many of the children in prisons have been in care, have experienced abuse, have mental health problems or special educational needs. Large numbers of children are locked up on remand for long periods of time – many for non-violent crimes.

The experience of prison is brutalising. It is also ineffective even in terms of the narrow goals of the criminal justice system – with extremely high rates of reoffending among young people.

Figures recently obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform show just how violent prison life is. They found that incidents of recorded violence in prisons has risen by more than 30 percent in just five years.

Self harm increased by 25 percent between 2004 and 2008 – with a total of 104,414 recorded incidents of self-injury in this time. In young offenders institutes prisoner-on-prisoner assaults have risen by 58 percent in five years.

France Crook, the director of the Howard League, points out that the rise in violence sheds light on a system that “locks up ever increasing numbers of men, women and children whose mental health problems and addictions will never be properly treated within flooded and failing jails”.

It is a damning indictment of the system that Britain continues to lock up children as young as ten – and in larger numbers than almost any country in Europe.

Young people in custody face strip searching, violent restraint and solitary confinement at the hands of the state. If this treatment happened outside prison walls it would be considered child abuse.

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Tue 26 May 2009, 18:19 BST
Issue No. 2153
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