Time to lock up teen thugs.” That’s how one newspaper summed up the views of the Metropolitan police commissioner, Cressida Dick, after she called for “harsher and more effective” prison sentences for young criminals. Too many were “simply not fearful of how the state will respond to their actions”, Dick said in a speech to the Howard League for Penal Reform. One 16-year-old with 42 convictions had not spent a single day behind bars.
Dick’s remarks didn’t go down well with the Howard League. As its chief executive, Frances Crook, pointed out, the chief inspector of prisons himself had recently declared there was not a single institution in England or Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people.
As an ex-prisoner myself, I believe that where children and young adults are concerned, jail should be the very last resort. In the local prison where I spent several months of my life as an adult, we mixed with young offenders aged between 18 and 20. What most struck me was their immaturity – and their vulnerability.
Whatever you might have heard, prison is not a holiday camp. All too often it is a chaotic environment plagued by drugs – notably new psychoactive substances such as “spice” – bullying and violence. Some establishments aim to protect young offenders by housing them in their own wings, but this isn’t universal.
Prison is a challenge for all inmates, let alone young offenders, who typically have less resilience and emotional intelligence. Some will already have passed through a youth offending institute or a secure training centre and will have adapted methods of “coping”, such as bullying others to gain credibility on the wing. Others simply flounder.
“Tom” (not his real name) was a young lad I knew who had been sentenced for a first violent offence. At 18, he arrived at prison frightened and isolated. Having spent several years in care (like many in custody), he had no money and very little support. While looking for foster parents, he had been “ghosted” (moved between jails) at least three times, with no one from the families turning up for planned visits. I was not surprised when other prisoners took advantage of him. Within three months, he was using spice and heavily in debt.
Unless segregated, young offenders are easy prey for older inmates, who will bully them into holding drugs or mobile phones on the understanding that if their cell is “spun” (searched by officers), they will take the consequences without informing. Many also struggle to adjust to prison’s peculiar combination of chaos and boundaries, with a regime that tells you where to be, but not who to be. Self-harm is common: Tom told me he kept razor blades under his bed in case things became too bad for him to manage.
Tom’s is not a uniquely sad story. The children and young adults who end up in custody tend to have much in common, and it’s not just that many come from broken homes. It’s the oft-repeated stories of the lack of a strong male role model (many of their fathers are locked up themselves). It’s the abuse (emotional, psychological and sexual) that far too many experience in their early years. It’s the learning disabilities that aren’t effectively supported in schools, ultimately leading to exclusion. It’s the failure of society at large to address these issues early enough to prevent low-level misbehaviour escalating to serious crime.
Holding some children and young adults in custody is undoubtedly necessary. There are clearly some very hardened young offenders. Crime is increasing and London – Cressida Dick’s area of responsibility – has seen a tragic increase in knife crime. However, the reality is that once a child is sentenced to imprisonment, we have already admitted defeat.