06:40, July 18 279 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-18 06:40:02
Prisons inspector warns of 'staggering' decline in standards at youth jails

There has been a “staggering” decline in standards and safety at youth jails in England and Wales, the chief inspector of prisons has said.

Peter Clarke, the former Metropolitan police head of counter-terrorism, said no young offender institution or privately run secure training centre officially inspected in early 2017 was safe to hold children and young people.

His annual report said assaults and self-harm rates are running at double the level of six years ago and while the reasons for the drop in standards are likely complex, “the current state of affairs is dangerous, counterproductive and will inevitably end in tragedy unless urgent corrective action is taken”.

Following the revelations about the mistreatment of children at Medway secure training centre in Kent, Clarke inspected other prisons holding 764 children in February and was so shocked by the findings that he raised them privately with ministers.

“In early 2017, I felt compelled to bring to the attention of ministers my serious concerns about the findings in the youth estate. By February 2017, we concluded that there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people. This is the first time this has been the case,” he said.

“The speed of decline has been staggering. There seems to have been something of a vicious circle. Violence leads to a restrictive regime and security measures that in turn frustrate those being held there. We have seen regimes where boys take every meal alone in their cell, where they are locked up for excessive amounts of time, where they do not get enough exercise, education or training, and where they do not have any credible plans to break the cycle of violence.”

The Ministry of Justice responded to his private warning by announcing that a new youth custody service – a distinct arm of the Prison Service – would take over the running of the youth estate, but Clarke said only time will tell if this can improve the situation.

Since February, Clarke said, he has inspected one young offender institution that was rated reasonably good, but “there is an awful long way to go”.

The chief inspector’s assessment of adult prisons found a 38% increase in assaults on staff, suicides doubling since 2013 to 113, and 21 out of 29 local and training prisons rated poor or not sufficiently good for safety.

Staffing levels in many jails are too low to keep order and maintain standards, he reported, with drugs, debt, bullying and self-segregation by prisoners looking to avoid violence commonplace. One in five inmates have developed a drug habit.

“I have often been appalled by conditions in which we hold many prisoners. Far too often I have seen men sharing a cell in which they are locked up for as much as 23 hours a day, in which they are required to eat all their meals, and in which there is an unscreened lavatory,” Clarke said.

“On several occasions, prisoners have pointed out insect and vermin infestations to me. In many prisons I have seen shower and lavatory facilities that are filthy and dilapidated, but with no credible or affordable plans for refurbishment. I have seen many prisoners who are obviously under the influence of drugs.” The chief inspector added that he had personally witnessed violence among prisoners.

The situation is most acute in youth jails and at local and training prisons, with conditions better in women’s prisons and the high-security estate, Clarke said. But he added that change is overdue and described the weakening of the prison reform bill after the June general election as a setback.