05:45, November 07 29 0 theguardian.com

2018-11-07 05:45:08
Children in prison aren’t coping - but nobody seems to care

Children’s jails are places we all wish didn’t exist. In this country we lock children up at 10, the minimum legal age for criminal responsibility. In secure children’s homes, young offender institutions and secure training centres, children are detained for committing crime but also for their own protection from abuse. This means some are detained having done nothing wrong. They can be locked up for any amount of time, including for the majority of their childhood.

Recently, User Voice, the organisation I founded, gave some of them an opportunity to tell the world about their lives. We spoke to 200 out of the approximately 1,000 children in jails, through focus groups, interviews and surveys. These voices are rarely heard, so this is probably the most in-depth consultation of incarcerated 10- to 17-year-olds in recent history.

What they told us made me angry and fearful for their futures. These vulnerable children are seriously stressed. Eighty-five per cent said they had taken drugs, of whom a large proportion told us this was to cope and to alleviate stress, grief and anger. “Isn’t that why all people take drugs, to suppress feelings and escape the world? [It’s an] easy way to cope with reality,” one child explained. For all the stories of good practice and standout staff, there were many, many more of torturous loneliness. “I have been let down in the care system so many times it’s hard to trust,” was the all-too-common refrain. “It’s OK if you’ve got small problems,” said another boy, seemingly resigned to dealing with his issues on his own. They are far from isolated examples. These children don’t believe adults will help them: three-quarters said they didn’t trust any professional involved in their so-called care. “Can’t go anywhere for help because all they will do is write stuff down and use it against you,” one child told us.

Little wonder that so many of these young people reported using drugs to deal with complex mental health issues such as grief, trauma and long-term stress. Some mentioned drinking to cope, and being hospitalised numerous times.

Stressed, no one to trust, resorting to drugs to cope. It’s a ticking time-bomb. It’s not just the trauma of what happened to them before they were locked up. Nearly all the kids I met seemed to be having a stress response to their situation – locked up for weeks, months and years, with limited access to their families, friends and possessions.

But these are vulnerable children and we should all be uncomfortable about incarcerating them. It is also a huge waste of money – it typically costs £200,000 a year to lock up one child. With around half of young offenders ending up in adult jails, this system is failing to rehabilitate children who commit crimes. We keep on doing the same old thing: punish, lock up, but never address the underlying causes that lead to stress, chaos and chemical reliance.

The young people themselves know it is a scandal. They want future generations to have the early intervention that they didn’t have, including access to supportive staff who understand, listen, are approachable, who respect them and who they feel they can trust.

But no one seems to care that these vulnerable children are not coping with being locked up, let alone do anything about it. If we don’t start jailing fewer children and making life better for those who are incarcerated, we cannot have much hope of ending the negative cycle of disadvantage, abuse, neglect, drug-taking and offending. The government needs to understand the links between trauma and child offending, and provide properly funded support services.

This negative pattern is not restricted to young offender institutions or secure children’s homes, it is all too visible in cities across the UK. Knife crime and youth crime are soaring. Why? Well, when you talk to these kids, the answers are there – in fact, they are shouting them out, but we’re still not listening.

 Mark Johnson is founder and chief executive of User Voice, a charity that works in prisons and the community

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