The chief inspector called for the overhaul of Young Offenders Institutions and for the practice of solitary confinement and separation to be abolished within the institutions.
Dr Erin Sanders-McDonagh, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent, reflects on the situation.
SPUTNIK: What kind of impact can Solitary Confinement have on a young person?
Sanders-McDonagh: We know that especially young people, can be in a YOI (Youth Offender Institution ) and have a support team in England. And we know that the mental health of 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18-year-olds, particularly if they're in for violent offences, they probably witnessed a lot of violence themselves. They probably come from areas where violence is part of their everyday lives. They'd be at increased risk for things like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. So putting them in solitary confinement would exacerbate that. We know solitary confinement in the adult population of prisoners really struggles with it. Putting a 14 to 15 or 16-year-olds in solitary confinement is one of the most horrific things I can think of. It has a really negative impact on them and if they do have mental health problems already, it exacerbates those to the point where we have become, you know, pretty gruesome form of punishment.
SPUTNIK: Now we've seen an increased number of privatized institutions when it comes to young offenders, has the increased use of solitary confinement gone hand in hand with these privatizations.
Sanders-McDonagh: I'm not sure if it's gone hand in hand with privatization per se, but it has gone hand in hand with the reduction to youth funding and prison services in general. So if you can imagine being a prison officer working in a YOI; if you have fewer and fewer staff to deal with more and more clients, and more and more units to prisoners or young people, then the solutions that you have, when people have traumatic incidents or when they're violent, you don't have as many resources to do something about that. So solitary confinement becomes a cheap and easy way of trying to solve what's a really difficult problem. So certainly, the resources across the prison service, including YOI's is part of the issue here.
SPUTNIK: What would you say to an argument that says young offenders should be treated with the same treatment as adult prisoners?
Sanders-McDonagh: There's a reason why we've decided as a society that people under the age of 18 aren't adults. We don't think of them as adults in any other context. We don't let them drive at the age of 14, we don't let them drink at the age of 14, because we know that their brains haven't developed in the same way. Their minds aren't at the same kind of capacity as an adult would be. There are reasons why we look at them as young offenders, and we need to treat them accordingly. Because they still need that support and that help.
If anyone thinks to put a 14-year-olds in prison as a good idea, and the suggestion is it really as a society, we have failed any 14-year-olds who ends up there, it's not the 14-year-olds fault. It's something that we've done as a society. That's meant that prison is the place they've ended up. So we really need to do more to make sure that people under the age of 18 particularly are supported because we don't want them going back into prison or YOIs. After that. If we can find an environment or make an environment where actually they get the help and support that they need. Then they become less likely to offend. Whereas at the minute, we know that putting them into a Youth Offending Institution, for many of them, makes them more likely to offend or to re-offend.
SPUTNIK: There have been calls from reformers who want to just end the practice of these youth jails, these institutions. Where do you stand on that? Do you think there is a better way than the current system that we have in place here in the UK?
Sanders-McDonagh: Yes, I absolutely do. I don't think Youth Offending Institutions work well for anybody. I think that we need to invest a lot more into early years research and into early years support. So from the age of zero to three, we know if we put money into shore starts to help people who are living in areas of high deprivation, that's one of the most important things that we can do to help children stay in education, to help parents parent the way that they want to and to keep young offenders out of offending in the first place.
So it has to be more preventative work, but that we need to do and if we get to the stage where we've got 14 and 15 or 16-year-olds who is in this crisis situation, putting them in an institution underfunded with few YoI staff and where mental health crises are already a problem, but there's no mental health funding, it's not going to work out well. We know that it's not going to work out well. So we have to find a better solution. And there are other models and other places that we can look at. We can look at the Scandinavian countries. New Zealand is trying to develop better models. There are lots of places going farther than what we've got in England at the minute.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.