Not a single young offender institution is safe: prison inspector's dire warning

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Young inmates across the country are locked in a “dangerous” and “vicious” cycle of violence that is destined to end in tragedy, the chief inspector of prisons warned MPs today  

Peter Clarke said there were also no credible plans to halt the violence and that the situation was so “dire” that not one young offender institution was safe to hold juveniles.  

His warning — which has serious implications for any move to combat youth and gang violence in London — came as Mr Clarke issued the most damning assessment ever made of the state of the country’s jails in his annual report to Parliament.

Mr Clarke’s report described the situation in institutions holding young offenders as “dire” and said: “By February this year we had reached the conclusion that there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people.

“The fact that we had reached a position where we could not judge any institution to be sufficiently safe was bad enough, but the speed of decline has been staggering.

The reasons for this slump in standards are no doubt complex, but need to be understood and addressed as a matter of urgency.” 

It said that there had been a “startling increase” in violence across all prisons, fuelled by drugs and staff shortages. The result is a growing number of deaths and injuries. 

Mr Clarke, a former head of counter-terrorism at Scotland Yard, added that he was “appalled” by some of the conditions in which inmates are detained and that there had been a “serious deterioration in standards” over the past year.

He said that many prisons are not fit for purpose.

Debt, bullying, self-harm and assaults — which rose by 26 per cent last year and included three homicides — are triggered as a result. At the same time, staff numbers in many prisons are “simply too low” to keep order.

Mr Clarke’s findings will fuel concerns about prison conditions and follow repeated warnings from penal reform groups.

They also confirm that too many prisoners, including young inmates who could be diverted from a future life of crime, are not getting rehabilitation while in prison, leading to further offending after their release.

Unveiling his report today, Mr Clarke said that standards had deteriorated sharply in the past year across all types of prison but that his biggest concern was the treatment of young inmates.

“The current state of affairs is dangerous, counterproductive and will inevitably end in tragedy unless urgent corrective action is taken,” he said.

“There seems to be something of a vicious circle. Violence leads to a restrictive regime and security measures which in turn frustrate those being held there.

“We have seen regimes where boys take every meal alone in their cell, where they are locked up for excessive amounts of time, where they do not get enough exercise, education or training, and where there do not appear to be any credible plans to break the cycle of violence.”

On adult male prisons, Mr Clarke describes a “dramatic and rapid decline” in standards with vermin infestations, filthy and sometimes unscreened lavatories, and “many prisoners who are obviously under the influence of drugs”.  

He added: “Debt, bullying, and self-segregation by prisoners looking to escape the violence generated by the drugs trade are commonplace.

“I have personally witnessed violence between prisoners, and seen both the physical and psychologically traumatic impact that serious violence has had on staff.

“Unsafe prisons will not rehabilitate, reform, educate, train or provide a therapeutic environment for the many people in them suffering from mental health issues. 

“The challenges thrown up by the prevalence of illegal drugs and other contraband, increasing violence, too many prisoners suffering from mental health issues, an ageing prison population and a prison estate that in many places is not fit for any purpose … are stretching staff to their limits. Reform is overdue.”

The report says that standards in women’s prisons are better but that it is “deeply concerning” that the 12 self-inflicted deaths of female inmates in the past year was the highest total since 2004. Self-harm among female prisoners has also risen dramatically.

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