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Tagged In:  Youth Offending
The Children’s Commissioner’s Unlocking Potential report looking at the isolation and solitary confinement of children in the English Youth Secure Estate, raises some fresh concerns. 

It concludes that children are more likely to be held in longer periods of isolation if detained in young offender institutions and that consequently, these young people, are more likely to go on to reoffend.  

Reintegration into society 

The report was commissioned to review the practices where children spend 16 hours or more in any 24 hour period without contact with their peers. It found that in order to maintain safety, around a third of children within the youth justice secure estates were subject to isolation at some point.

This, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has warned, not only interrupts the children’s education but it makes it far more difficult to reintegrate them into society once they are released, many of which will be under the supervision of a youth offending officer

Proposed smaller units

The main problem, flagged by the report, centres on the size of Youth Offending Institutions (YOI), where children live in close quarters, and where it doesn’t take much for, as the commissioner describes ‘a verbal altercation to grow into a physical fight, pulling in more and more children’. 

In drawing comparisons between Secure Children’s Homes (SCH) and YOIs, the report highlights the benefits of those in SCH’s having more physical space, which enables tensions to be less intense than bigger, yet more confined YOIs. This is compounded by the fact that children sometimes arrive at YOIs as members of street gangs or they join one while they are inside.

SCHs tend to practice isolation mainly as a way to diffuse a situation. Consequently, segregation tends to be considerably shorter than in YOIs.

Whether the government will head Anne Longfield’s concerns though, is yet to be seen. There will most certainly be significant financial implications, as smaller units would require a vastly increased adult-to-child ratio and the cost-effectiveness of such proposals would have to be carefully considered. However, the number of children held in secure units has fallen to around 1,000 children from about 3,000 seven years ago and so a re-design of the youth secure estate is more conceivable than it once was. 

The wider picture

How does this work with what Justice Secretary Michael Gove is proposing by way of reform to the prison estate though? He has already made it clear that he supports linking academic performance with an offender’s release date, and that the UK’s stubborn reoffending rates, in his words are “horrifying”. 

The Ministry of Justice has responded to the Unlocking Potential report by stating “children should only be segregated as a last resort”, although there’s no indication yet as to whether it will head the Children’s Commissioner’s advice. If we are going to see more of a sway to using smaller units that give enhanced to young offenders, we’re not likely to hear back until next year when the youth justice system review is due. 
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