It seems that the UK government still has no idea what to do about children they want to put in prison. A few days ago, on 24th February 2017, the Youth Custody Improvement Board (YCIB) made some recommendations as to how the youth secure estate can be improved stating that there has been no national vision for the youth secure estate.  The government, on the same day,  announced the creation of a new body, the Youth Custody Service, a department which will be subsumed within the new HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). Responsibility for youth custody will pass from the Youth Justice Board (YJB) to this new unit, slicing off another portion of the YJB and meaning that decisions regarding youth custody are put to the bottom of the pile and where the specific needs of children will be overlooked.

In their report the YCIB state, rightly, that there has been no national vision for the youth secure estate. The trouble is, there never has been. Since the very first penal institution for young people, Parkhurst, was set up in 1838, the youth secure estate has comprised a series of haphazard experiments, with parallel unconnected and unsuccessful provision for the children and young people it is meant to be keeping safe and rehabilitating. We currently have three types of youth custody in the UK: Secure Children’s Homes, Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions. They all have different motivations, provision and regimes which come more from how they have emerged historically rather than a clear strategy or vision.

Our modern youth justice estate was formed in the Victorian era and has always been an uneasy meeting in the middle of child protection campaigners trying to help children born with the worst start in life, and a pro prison lobby that see such children as inherently incorrigible and needing punishment. In 1854 Reformatory Schools (and in 1857 Industrial Schools) were provided as the first institutional alternative to prison for young people. Their name suggests their aim: to reform and provide industry to children who might otherwise be ‘vagrant, destitute, and disorderly’. These schools were merged in 1933 to become Approved Schools where children could stay until their 19th birthday. In the 1950s, absconding from these schools led to the creation of closed secure units within them. By 1969 Approved Schools were renamed ‘Community Homes’ with education, and those with secure units are what we call Secure Children’s Homes today.

The other strand of youth custody grew in a parallel series of experiments. Until 1893 children sent to a Reformatory School had to do a stint in prison as part of their sentence (indeed, being sent to adult prison was only stopped for children under the age of 14 in 1908 and for those under the age of 17 in 1948). Then, in 1902 a new experiment in Borstal in Kent, started the institutions that would take its name when they were rolled out across the country in 1908. They were to separate young people between the age of 16 (reduced to age 15 in 1961) and 21 from adults. Borstals stayed operational until the 1982 Criminal Justice Act renamed them Youth Custody Centres.

The next 40 year experiment was Detention Centres. Set up by the 1948 Act and becoming operational in 1952, they used military style drills and were intended as a ‘short, sharp shock’ for those aged between 14 and 21 but without a clear definition of purpose except to stave off criticism that youth detention was too soft. By 1982 these two main experiments – the Youth Custody Centres and Detention Centres existed side by side. Then in 1988 they were combined and renamed Young Offender Institutions under the Criminal Justice Act which is what they remain today.

The final, and most recent, strand was another reactionary experiment. Secure Training Centres for 12 to 14 year olds were proposed in 1993, opened in 1998, and were run by private for profit providers some of whom have recently been admonished for abuses. Since then, the government has proposed, and glossed over, a proposal for ‘Secure Colleges’, which sounded dubiously exactly like Young Offender Institutions by any other name, and has now approved Charlie Taylor’s recommendation to build two new Secure Schools. Mr Taylor’s (who is now to be the Chair of the YJB) thoughtful recommendation that these schools should replace Young Offenders Institutions and Secure Training Centres and be instead be just like schools, run as a collaboration between Department for Education (DfE) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), may now well be impossible to carry out given that youth custody will sit exclusively underneath the direction of the adult estate, tucked inside the MoJ, very far away from the DfE, and indeed from his new look YJB.

The situation of young people in prison has always been a deep concern for Justice Studio. Before setting up Justice Studio I led three evaluations of the youth secure estate. We have also undertaken a review of the Secure Children’s Homes. Politicians’ continuing failure to strategise and learn from a rich history of past mistakes is something that saddens us greatly. In the end the failure to properly conceive and run a youth secure estate damages the young people within it and ultimately makes our communities less safe.

Justice Studio urges the government to stop flitting backwards and forwards in a series of misguided and uninformed experiments as it has done for over a hundred years. Instead it must make a considered and strategic approach to youth custody, based on plentiful evidence of good practice and sensible policy approaches. Young people in the criminal justice need to be helped not experimented on.