Youth prison system in Britain is a crime

Jim Moody castigates locking away children and young people

Britain puts many more children and young people behind bars than any other country in western Europe.

As of February, a record 2,422 young convicted and remand prisoners are being held in custody in young offender institutions (YOIs) in England and Wales; a further 461 are held in local authority secure children’s homes (LASCH) and the four privately-run secure training centres (STCs). The total of 2,883 under-18s (juveniles) held within the ‘secure estate’ represented an increase of 55 over the previous month. In addition, hundreds of separated children and children with a parent are held in immigration removal centres pending deportation.

More than four times as many young people are imprisoned in the UK than in France, which has a similar population. Indeed, in even greater contrast, as a proportion of the population more than 14 times as many youngsters are locked up in Britain as in Belgium, or more than 20 times as many as in the Netherlands.

The barbarism of capitalism in Britain is expressed in many ways, but its locking up of children and young people must rate as among the lowest of the low in terms of anti-human conduct. The age of criminal responsibility is eight in Scotland, while in Northern Ireland, England and Wales it is 10. In most Scandinavian countries it is 15.


Anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) were established as weapons in the armoury of the British courts by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Their application was strengthened by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 for England and Wales and the Anti-social Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004. Magistrates' courts in England and Wales and Sheriffs' courts in Scotland have utilised them accordingly to the full.

It comes as no surprise that the greater use of Asbos, which are primarily employed against youth, is resulting in the criminalisation of growing numbers of young people. Breach of an Asbo is a criminal offence and conviction for doing so may result in up to two years’ imprisonment for a minor, five for an adult.


The courts in England and Wales can sentence a young person to be detained in one of three types of ‘secure accommodation’. At the highest level of custodial sentencing are the YOIs, which are run by the prison service. These accommodate 15- to 21-year-old boys and young men. The inmate-to-staff ratio is high and large numbers of inmates are held in conditions similar to those in adult prisons.

However, in flagrant breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), a girl receiving a custodial sentence will not go to a custom youth facility, but will be sent to the juvenile wing of an adult female prison (e.g. Holloway in London). About 70 girls and young women under the age of 18 are currently being held in this way. Both the Youth Justice Board, which is responsible for the administration of the juvenile justice system, and the prison service formally oppose this situation.

These bodies’ stance seems to be aimed at covering their corporate backs in case of human rights litigation. Although the YJB has commissioned five new dedicated units for young women, and Rainsbrook and Hassockfield STCs are supposed to have dedicated units in place soon, in the meantime the (officially) unacceptable situation continues.

The four STCs, all of which are privately operated, also house under-18s in England. They are purportedly designed for more vulnerable young people, are smaller in size than YOIs and have a higher staff-to-‘trainee’ ratio (a minimum of three staff members per eight trainees) than YOIs. As of this February, there were 243 trainees in this kind of custody.

At the lowest level of the ‘secure estate’ are LASCHs, which are used to house children of both sexes aged 12 to 14, as well as girls and ‘vulnerable’ boys aged 15 and 16. They are usually small, with five to 38 beds in each home.

In Scotland, a system of children’s hearings took over from the courts in 1971, taking most of the responsibility for dealing with children and young people under 16, and in some cases under 18, who commit offences or who are in need of care and protection. In all appropriate cases, Scotland’s Procurator Fiscal decides if it is in the ‘public interest’ for children under 16 to be prosecuted in court for serious offences (eg, murder, deadly assault or road traffic offences that can lead to disqualification). Although most sentences applied to under-16s require them to stay at home, with relatives or sometimes with foster parents, hearings may exceptionally rule that children are placed in an establishment managed by a local authority or a voluntary organisation (eg, children’s homes, residential schools or secure accommodation).

Cornton Vale YOI (housing around 30 young women) and Polmont YOI (housing up to 454 young male inmates) are Scotland’s only facilities for young offenders at the highest level. They contain nearly 300 young remand inmates at any one time. In 2005-06, while no girls under 16 were being detained, 18 boys in that age group were being held in YOI Polmont; they were considered too disruptive for the secure places scheme.


The bankruptcy of this whole policy is evident. Unchallenged evidence shows that the recidivism rate for young people leaving custody is over 80%. So we have to ask, seriously, what purpose is served by locking them up in the first place? In parallel to the situation in adult prisons, the provision of other than the most rudimentary means of rehabilitation is absent. As with adult prisoners, the primary purpose of youth custody seems to be simply to ‘keep them off the streets’ for the period of incarceration.

We say that “crime can only be understood in relationship to society. In a class society crime is a product of alienation, want or resistance. Under capitalism the criminal system is an anti-working class, anti-popular system” (CPGB Draft programme). This is particularly so for youth who fall foul of the system.

Most importantly, young inmates in the YOIs especially have no opportunity to develop themselves as human beings. In many areas of the country, young inmates are not in YOIs within a short distance of their home locality, causing untold distress for their families as well as themselves.

There is no way that time spent in a YOI can approach normal life for a young person. Custody for youth is not as it might be, in principle, for an adult. Were the aim of prison to be rehabilitation, rather than punishment, the opportunities for education and training would match that of educational institutions outside (admittedly hardly expansive). This is certainly nowhere near to being the case.

Disgracefully, it is only in Scotland that those in custody with mental health problems are detained in hospitals and treated by the health service. In prisons and YOIs across the rest of Britain the problems of such people are intensified by the inhuman nature of the system. What passes for a health system provided by the prison service is, shall we say, inadequate.

Deaths in custody

The despair that young people can experience in penal custody has its reflection in the 30 deaths that have occurred since 1990 in YOIs and STCs. Many of these 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds take their own lives. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Bullying and maltreatment go unreported, bringing enormous stress and anxiety to often vulnerable young people. Being held in custody is itself an especially harmful and damaging procedure for those yet to reach formal adulthood.

Physical restraint in the commercially managed STCs has been used over 1,200 times this year alone. These four institutions hold between them only 190 inmates, most of whom are aged 14 and 15. The wielding of such institutional violence on such a scale is an indictment of the system.