Kent Prison Still In 'Intensive care'

22 March 2011, 00:00

The Howard League for Penal Reform says a report into the Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institution near Rochester makes for a worrying read

A statement says Children sent there are bullied by other children,  painfully restrained by adult staff and abandoned by society.

A report by the Prison Inspector describes the prison near Rochester as 'Off the Critical List, but Still In Intensive Care'

This is the statement from Frances Crook, the director of the League


"The report into Cookham Wood prison makes a very worrying read. Children sent to prison are bullied by other children,  painfully restrained by adult staff and abandoned by society.  There is a systematic failure to protect children for whom prison is an extension of the abusive and neglectful homes in which they grew up.  The state should not be perpetuating the cycle of abuse by sending children to prisons that are dangerous, inappropriate and unsafe.

"It was only a few years ago that there was just a handful of children in prison at any one time. Thousands of children are now sent to these unsafe prisons each year and I don’t believe that it is children that have changed; it is the way we respond to them and the systems we put in place. Children in the criminal justice system require concerted intervention and family support. A short stretch in a prison and then put straight back where they came from is leading to total failure and guaranteeing a career of crime.

"Children often leave these colleges of crime more damaged and more dangerous than when they first went in and we are mistaken if we think we can avoid having that inflicted on us when they come back to our streets; 72 per cent of children leaving custody are still being reconvicted within a year."

This is the Original Statement from the Inspector of Prisons

Cookham Wood has seen some improvements, but they were fragile and progress on resettlement had stalled, said Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons, publishing the report of an unannounced inspection of the young offender institution near Rochester.

HMYOI Cookham Wood, a former women’s prison, re-roled and admitted its first young male prisoner in May 2008. At our last inspection in 2009, it was a frightening and unsafe place. Young people were hiding in their cells. Broken windows and damaged fittings caused by vandalism added to the poor environment. Despite this, a reasonable start had been made in providing education, training and resettlement activities to young people. We recommended that the numbers of young people allocated to Cookham Wood were reduced until a safe and ordered environment had been achieved. This reduction gave the governor some space to bring better order, but now capacity has increased to the full figure of 143.

Inspectors noted that:

·        a much better strategic approach to bullying, tighter controls on movement and a heavy reliance on formal discipline had improved some aspects of safety;

·        the use of force had reduced significantly and de-escalation techniques were successfully applied;

·        the physical environment had improved;

·        health care was good and there had been real improvements in the care of young people with mental health problems;

·        there was very good work on race; and

·        the vocational training workshops were a success, and the murals workshop was outstanding, not just for the quality of work and learning, but for its successful work with some of the most challenging young people.

However, inspectors had serious concerns. What Cookham Wood needed was support in developing a stable, experienced and confident staff group with the skills and desire to work with some very challenging young people. Achieving this was made much more difficult by the recruitment controls in place at the time of the inspection. Specific concerns included:

the Phoenix unit, set up to manage the most difficult young people, was not operating as intended;
despite some safety improvements, there had been three serious assaults on staff prior to the inspection and two further serious incidents after the inspection;
there was an over-reliance on formal disciplinary procedures, including a high number of governor’s adjudications;
bullying remained a significant problem;
the quality of interactions between staff and young people were mixed although it is not surprising that, in view of recent history, some staff were anxious about engaging individually with young people and relied on formal processes;
the limitations of the buildings themselves placed real constraints on what could be achieved;
more work was needed to address diversity issues for young people with disabilities, travellers, foreign nationals and on sexuality; and
although resettlement remained a strength, progress had stalled and it relied too much on the efforts of individual staff, while maintaining family relationships requiring urgent attention. A significant number of young people never received any visits.

Nick Hardwick said:

“The YJB, NOMS and Ministers should be in no doubt that although Cookham Wood may be off the critical list, it should remain in intensive care and needs intelligent support if that progress is to be sustained. The establishment is safer than it was when we carried out our last inspection, but staff and management need support and stability to build on that to deliver consistently effective relationships with young people. The safety of the prison will depend on these relationships, and they are the key ingredient in helping the young people move to law-abiding and useful adult lives.”

Michael Spurr, Chief Executive Officer of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), said:

"I am grateful to the Chief Inspector for a thorough report on an establishment which is working hard to remedy the deficits identified in the previous report. It is encouraging that there are areas of progress and the Governor and her staff will work to address the areas which need further improvement. Violence and self-harm levels have also continued to fall since this inspection.
"The Governor has implemented an improvement plan to tackle the issues raised in this report and will work to improve the relationships with the young people which will contribute to reducing re-offending and protecting the public."