Youth jails and other young offenders institutions should be reformed by a new system of “secure schools” according to a new report.
The review, which was commissioned by justice secretary Michael Gove and released on Tuesday suggest staff working in youth jails in both the private and public sectors do not have the skills or training to effectively take care of vulnerable young prisoners under the current system.
Restructuring the way youth jails work will help young offenders to receive more education in a more constructive environment, instead of simply teaching the young lawbreakers how to survive in prison.
Charlie Taylor, a child behavioural expert and former headteacher who wrote the report, said: “It is clear that what is best for children has at times become secondary to containment, the management of risk and establishing uniform processes. Rather than preparing children for life on the outside, too often these establishments seem to be teaching children how to survive in prison."
The number of young offenders in custody has fallen dramatically in recent years to an all time low of 1,037 in 2015, down from 2,881 in 2008. Government data shows that there has been a significant reduction in the numbers of children in custody, down 64% in seven years.
But Mat Ilic, justice director of Catch22, a company working across across prisons, community justice and alternative education provision, cautioned against celebrating the decrease, telling HuffPost UK: "For a long time we've revelled in the reductions in first time entrants and the use of custody.
"We had neglected the question of outcomes for young people who offend and in a small number of cases end up in a revolving door, preparing for a life as adult prisoners.
"Go to any young offenders' institution and you will see that it's a place that can sap you of the hope that there can be another life after the bars. The call for smaller, devolved, localised and autonomous youth justice institutions and services is a welcome approach; one that will hopefully harness the best of the public, private and non-profit sectors in helping these youngsters rebuild their futures."
He added: "We moved the debate on in education - we should have the same high ambitions for these kids whose custody places cost three times the average private school place."
However, Taylor’s report warns that workers must not lose sight of the goal to successfully rehabilitate young offenders, adding: “There must be an ambition for children who offend to be helped to overcome their difficulties.
“Our most worrying finding is that the culture of aspiration and discipline which is evident in the best alternative provision schools – whose pupils share many of the characteristics of children in custody – has rarely been encountered in youth custody.”
Currently, young offenders are only receiving on average 17 hours of tuition every week, well below the targets for 30 hours of education, according to the report.
Tamsin Gregory, a representative from the St Giles Trust, a group which specifically helps offenders assimilate into communities and find jobs after being released from custody, told HuffPost UK that she hoped the reforms would improve access to education, and involve former offenders as role models.
“We hope it will improve access to education. This will be dependent on resourcing in the new schools and the level of training and expertise of the staff working in them,” she said.
She emphasised that for young offenders in custody, it can be difficult to trust other people, so for successful reform, the new schools should adopt credible role models, who should be aspirational figures for youths upon leaving prison.
“There should be professionally trained young former offenders themselves who have gone on to make positive changes in their lives.
“People in the criminal justice system – particularly young people – can be very difficult to engage and often mistrust anyone they perceive as being in authority. However, they are more likely to trust their peers as they are more on their level. Therefore, support from someone who has ‘been there themselves’ represents a highly credible role model to that young person and is living proof that change is possible.”
In a recent speech on prison sentencing, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to protect the £130m budget for education in prisons, and has also proposed changes to job applications so previous offenders no longer have to declare convictions straight away.