Incarceration, Suicide, Self-Harm and Sexual Repression or Positive Youth Justice

Ta to the Guardian
Ta to the Guardian

A year ago we expressed our deep concern at the prospect of a Super Prison for Young People. The government’s plans for a 320-bed  “fortified school” in Leicestershire now face increasing criticism following a damning report from the Howard League for Penal Reform. Sadly the Independent has run the story under the tabloid headline, ‘Imprisonment ‘turns young offenders into sex criminals’. In fact the Report’s findings are better caught in the following:

High levels of violence, the use of force by guards and long periods spent locked up made it difficult for children in custody to “develop a healthy sexual identity”, a 15-strong commission set up by the Howard League for Penal Reform said in its fourth report into the issue of sex in prison.

More than 1,000 children are held in custody in England and Wales, with 95 per cent of them boys, and most aged 16 or 17.

“The commission heard that boys learnt to keep their sexual behaviour secret in prison,” said the report. “Punishment for normal sexual behaviours could evoke feelings of guilt or shame for boys in prison and could increase the risk of sexual offending.”

It concluded: “Incarcerating children at this formative time is counter-productive and may be compounding problematic behaviour and increasing their risk of sexual offending.”

Whilst in Liverpoool a leading lawyer, ex-cons and a prison reform charity all  expressed fears over the Fazakerley jail, home to 1,100 young offenders and adult prisoners. Six inmates – including two 20-year-olds – have taken their lives in the past four years, while there were nearly 900 incidents of prisoners self-harming themselves in 2013; up from just 290 in 2009 – see Exposed: The alarming self-harm rates and suicides of young men at Merseyside’s privately-run prison

Meanwhile Professor Kevin Haines and Dr Stephen Case propose an alternative model for youth justice that puts children first. They begin:

The Youth Justice System (YJS) of England and Wales is not fit for purpose. It is about time that the YJS started to treat children who offend in ways that befit their status as children under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The YJS should put children first, not deal with individuals up to the age of 18 as if they are ‘offenders’ or mini-adults within a mini-adult Criminal Justice System.

A typical extract from their argument reads:

We must prioritise children’s engagement over their enforced compliance, their participation over prescription and instruction, their capacities and strengths over their deficits and differences to adults.

Child-friendly and child-appropriate youth justice services are, by design, children first.

Interestingly. given our critique of imposed outcomes in youth work, they comment:

The YJS must avoid its current programme fetishism – privileging psychological, pseudo-scientific, offence-focused work packages that can be lifted ‘off the shelf’ and delivered to children. Programme fetishism fosters prescriptive, dehumanising and desocialising practice that runs counter to the child-friendly, diversionary, promotional and engaging ethos of Children First Offenders Second positive youth justice.

As we have noted many times a significant number of youth workers  have been transferred into youth justice teams or, as the Wigan Council euphemistically puts it, into its bespoke Restorative Solutions team. In this context it would be illuminating to hear from workers within youth justice across the country as to the character of their relationships with young people and the justice system itself.

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