Tackling violence in Europe's largest youth prison
- 12 June 2012
- From the section UK
Young people in custody are almost 10 times more likely than adults to get involved in a fight or serious assault behind bars. Newsnight has had exclusive access to a specialist unit built to deal with the most violent and disruptive offenders inside Europe's largest youth prison, Hindley, in north-west England.
Seventeen-year-old Scot is staring out of the small window of his ground floor cell across to high walls covered in razor wire. He is in the last week of a sentence for armed robbery with a knife and a string of burglaries.
"I did six months then I started playing up and that - fighting, smashing my TV," he says. "I was doing stupid things just because I was bored and in the end they got sick of it."
Scot is one of the residents of Willow, an experimental 11-bed unit that sits in the grounds of Hindley Young Offenders' Institution near Wigan.
The idea is to take the most disruptive teenagers out of the sprawling main wings of the prison where they can cause the most trouble.
Prison officers on Willow are specially trained to deal with disruptive behaviour; staffing levels are three times higher; and there is easier access to both mental health treatment and drug and alcohol services.
Teenagers get to spend more time out of their cells and are offered the kind of individual attention that it is impossible to provide on the much larger main wings.
Many more of these enhanced units are now planned in other Young Offenders Institutions across England and Wales.
"Often some young people are completely disengaged from the regime, from education and from prison staff," says Andy Rogers, the senior clinical psychologist attached to the unit.
"If someone is being violent, that's the first thing we need to address. Then we can have rosier expectations about making the world a better place.
"If we can prevent a young person being violent to another young person by bringing them onto Willow then it has served its purpose," he says.
But the idea has some fierce critics.
The Howard League, which campaigns for reform of the prison system, describes the measure as "like trying to put sticking plaster on a gaping wound".
It suspects enhanced units are being used as a cheaper alternative to dealing with these types of young offenders than much more expensive options like a secure children's home or dedicated hospital ward.
Teenagers are moved onto Willow for disruptive or high risk behaviours.
That could include acts of violence but also setting fires, attempting to escape, spitting, smearing excrement and extreme self-harm.
Seventeen-year-old Matt was transferred to the unit in January after getting involved in a series of fights on C-wing:
"I was in the exercise yard the first time, hit one lad, he fell on the floor," he says. "I stamped on him. And then I went and hit another lad. I swung for him as well. I assaulted two people then I went for the third one."
"You have to stand your ground otherwise people will start bullying you. They put me on here because they know I can't be trusted," Matt explains.
"We all get along in here. But on a wing you've got a load of stirrers who can't hack it. They start bullying people and that's how I get in fights."
Likelihood of reoffending
The reoffending rate after leaving youth prison is even higher than for mainstream adult jail.
Around 75% of the teenagers in Hindley will commit another crime within a year of their release, if current trends continue. Given the nature of its inmates, the rate in Willow is likely to be even higher.
The staff working on the unit accept it is unrealistic to hope these teenagers will walk free and never commit another offence.
Instead the objective is to reduce the severity of any future offence or increase the length of time between offences.
"It is where we set our bar," says psychologist Andy Rogers. "For some of the young people, it can't get much worse. If they are still punching people at the same frequency and severity as when they came in then we haven't done our job."
It is still too early to tell if Willow is really making a difference - that will take long, expensive studies over many years.
The government says the early signs are encouraging enough to commission more of these units across England and Wales.
At the same time the Youth Justice Board is cutting number of places in secure children's homes, an alternative run and managed by local authorities.
Setting up the Willow unit cost prison authorities around £2m, or £181,000 a cell. But overall running costs are likely to be significantly lower than a secure children's home where there are far fewer teenagers and staffing levels are higher.
The latest figures from April 2011 show a place in a Young Offenders Institution costs the state around £57,000 a year, almost four times lower than the £211,000 needed to pay for a place in a secure children's home.
"Cost appears to be the only real consideration," says Frances Crook at the Howard League for Penal Reform. "The number of beds in the effective, but expensive, secure children's homes is being reduced while we continuing to rely on huge child jails and privately run training centres."
Preferential treatment claims
The group is also concerned that enhanced units can stigmatise the young people transferred there and cause tension within the wider prison, giving the impression that a small group is getting preferential treatment.
It says the most disruptive young prisoners often have the most complex mental health needs. In those extreme cases, it wants teenagers referred to a secure mental health hospital.
The deputy governor of Hindley, Mark Livingstone, disagrees saying the level of violence that some of the young people held on Willow are capable of cannot be managed properly outside the prison system.
Another Willow resident, 17-year-old Kieran, has been in and out of custody since he was 15. He is now coming to the end of his latest sentence, this time after breaking someone's nose in a pub brawl.
"I haven't lost it since I've been here in Willow. I take it that's a good thing," he says.
"It's different when I drink so when I get out I'm moving to a new area and trying to have a fresh start."
But when he is asked about his chances of staying out of trouble his confidence quickly fades.
"50:50. We'll just have to see won't we," he says.
Some names have been changed for this report as the individuals involved are under 18 years old.
Watch the full report on Newsnight on Tuesday 12 June 2012 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.