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Frances Crook's blog · 2 Feb 2016

Medway secure training centre

Frances Crook in front of office bookshelves

Anyone who saw the violence, casual abuse and hatred inflicted on children inside Medway secure training centre that was revealed by Panorama would be shocked. Even I was horrified, after years of hearing about high use of violence by staff to control children, broken bones and distress. The question now is, what are we going to do?

There are three secure training centres, all currently run by G4S although Rainsbrook will transfer to MTCNovo later this year. The justice secretary has appointed Charlie Taylor to take a look at the youth justice system including the way we lock children up. I am assuming he will find that prisons that hold the majority of boys are dreadful places, and, he will have to make recommendations to change the STCs following the public outcry over abuse and the consequent police investigation.

My worry is that the STCs will continue to exist when they are rotten to the core. The very concept is flawed.

They are the epitome of political expediency and ego. Politicians always want to be seen to do something, even if it is the wrong thing. This is what happened when STCs were invented by Kenneth Clarke in response to a media scare.

The buildings are not suitable for children. They are too big to care for highly vulnerable children. They are closed and secretive, as we have seen with the only filming had to be secret. They incarcerate children who do not need security but need care and support. They detain many children who are remanded but will not get a custodial sentence.  Many of the children who are sentenced are detained only for short periods.

It is not a question of who runs them, the legal framework that incarcerates the children is wrong. Swapping providers will not solve the problem.

The reason I am writing this is because I hear that that is exactly what is being considered. Charities have always resisted running penal institutions as they appreciate that punishment is not a charitable objective. I hear that a Spanish based charity that runs a string of child jails is bidding to take over the STCs here.

I have seen these places in Spain, and I was not impressed. To begin with, the Spanish government is not transparent when it comes to the number of children in custody. The centres I saw involved the deprivation of liberty but the Spanish government claims (see page 71 of the most recent Council of Europe figures) that there are 0 children held in penal institutions. In fact, it seems that hundreds, possibly thousands of children are held in custody in Spain.

The custody in question may be branded as ‘educational’ but the children held in these centres were compelled to be there. Dress it up as you will, that means their liberty is being deprived and these are penal institutions. The educational facilities I did see were not particularly developed. There were very few books on show, for example, and no provision for art, music or science. They are mixed gender facilities and I did manage to extract an admission from one of the jails that at least two girls had got pregnant. They didn’t seem to know what had happened to the babies or the girls.

There was a healthier atmosphere between the staff and the children than in the STCs. This was aided by a regime which sees many of the children released during the day. The Spanish system locks some of the children up all the time but allows some of them to go to school during the day, or attend outdoor activities. But this raises an important question. If these children were safe enough to spend all day in school with other children, then why remove them from their families and punish them with incarceration in the first place? In fact, I was left concerned that the ‘semi-open’ regime was potentially sucking in Spanish children to custody when they did not need to be there. I come back to my point that the Spanish government claims no children are in penal custody at all.

It would be seductive to pretend that a new way of locking up children will be better.

The answer must lie in closing the prisons. No child should be in a prison. We should close the STCs, they are proven to harm children. For the very few children who are so damaged and damaging that close custody is needed, we already have small secure units that have a track record of success. We don’t need to import failing systems from other countries, we have our own way of caring for children that works, let’s use it.

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