UK government turns children’s prisons into schools

MORE THAT a century ago, a prison in Borstal, Kent, reserved a wing for its youngest inmates. The teens had ended up with older delays, but officials hoped special treatment would help them recover. As Evelyn Ruggles-Brise of the Prison Commission said, education and exercise would save ‘young thugs’ from a ‘usual crime career’.

Today the reformers are taking their chances again. Next year, on a site down the road from Borstal prison, the first “secure school” will open. The aim is to dismantle the violent detention centers in which most children find themselves, and thus reduce recidivism. The government promises that the new facilities will have “education and health” at their heart.

Over the past decade, the number of under-18s behind bars in England and Wales has fallen by two-thirds (see graph). But as the prisons now hold only the most disadvantaged young people, conditions have deteriorated. Incidents in which inmates had to be restrained increased by 54% in the five years leading up to the pandemic. Self-harm has doubled.

A government report in 2016 noted that half of 15 to 17 year olds in prison do not have better reading skills than the average 11 year old. He recommended moving young people to new institutions run by the charities which now run most of England’s secondary schools. Ultimately, the goal is to create enough secure schools to accommodate the majority of detained children.

Oasis, a charity that operates 53 schools, was chosen to establish the first. Steve Chalke, the outfit’s founder, insists it will “not just be a detention center by any other name.” The school will employ educators rather than guards, and will have “rooms” not cells. Volunteers will organize activities during downtime, such as art and recording studio sessions. The institution will not be able to accommodate more than 49 children.

Smaller structures should make it easier to accommodate young people close to their families and to set up outreach programs that reintegrate them when they leave. In recent years, the government has closed many detention centers that no longer hold many prisoners, which means children are often sent to institutions far from their homes. Two-thirds break the law within a year of release.

Not everyone is optimistic. The school will use premises vacated by a prison that has been prosecuted by allegations of assault on staff. Frances Crook of the Howard League, a charity, doubts that a gentler form of custody could be created in such a building.

The government must amend the law on charitable status, to make explicit which charities are allowed to operate prisons, one of the reasons for the school’s opening, scheduled for last fall , tarde. In February, a House of Commons committee said the slow progress did not inspire confidence that more would arrive soon.

The number of children detained could fall further. More than 30% are in pre-trial detention and two-thirds do not end up with jail terms when their cases are tried. But John Drew of the Prison Reform Trust, a pressure group, thinks it is nonetheless worth knowing whether educational charities can bring a “different ethic” to juvenile detention in cases where it is unavoidable. As Ruggles-Brise might have said, young thugs deserve better.

This article appeared in the Great Britain section of the print edition under the title “Chained to the desk”

About Walter Bartholomew

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