Secure Colleges – What could possibly go wrong?


Plans for the building of a ‘secure college’ in Leicestershire have reportedly been put on hold until after the general election. The Reclaim Justice Network has published a briefing raising concerns about these institutions and urging all political parties to completely abandon the plans completely. The article below elaborates on these concerns and highlights the need for a more nuanced understanding and response to young people who break the law.

Recent Government statistics demonstrate that the current approach to incarceration of young people is a social disaster: “71% of young offenders released from custody re-offend within 12 months.” (MoJ response to consultation on Secure Colleges, January 2014).

So what is the best alternative we can come up with?

The Government has pushed through (amidst significant resistance) its plans to establish what will be known as the first Secure College in Leicester by 2017. Secure Colleges will house up to 320 young men in wings and, for the ‘youngest and most vulnerable’, smaller units.

The Secure College may sound like a logical and genuine improvement to current custody arrangements for 12-17 year olds. If your first question is not, why are we putting 12-17 year olds in prison at all? it might be, what better way to support children’s development than through quality education provision?

And, that makes sense. But, that is what we have a comprehensive education system for.

Many of the young men and boys in UK prisons have found it very difficult to participate in formal education and in the mainstream school system. That may be because of emotional and behavioural issues; anger, violence and inappropriate behaviour often accompanies young people’s development; and it may also be because the mainstream education system cannot cope with young people’s expressions of rebellion, frustration, autonomy or dissent. Why else are 86% of boys in YOIs excluded from school or have they a literacy level so below their chronological age? Putting children in prison and expecting them to take part in education as part of their sentence is perhaps not going to be the most effective way forward.

Children and young people are developing beings; they are fragile and require the utmost care and attention, regardless of the sometimes horrific crimes they have been involved in or committed.

Children and young people are, primarily people, and housing large numbers of fragile, developing people in a closed environment, reinforcing the label of ‘criminal’ and imposing formal educational structures upon them cannot surely be seen as a wise proposal for encouraging some of the most damaged and vulnerable among us to thrive?

Children and young people learn best in small groups, where participation and interaction, agency and trust are at the heart of the relationships. Custodial settings, call them what you like, are unlikely to ever achieve these basic aspirations.

Locking children and young people up under a regime over which they have no control and in which they are subject to ongoing punishment (the Incentive and Earned Privilege Scheme is established to punish the inappropriate and ‘reward’ good behaviour); is a sure fire way to enrage children and young people and to cause more conflict with an already conflicted and angry group.

As a youth worker with many years’ experience of working with young people including in residential settings, of all ages with multiple and complex life experiences, I cannot imagine what it must be like for staff to work in children’s prisons. To want to do profound, meaningful and sustainable work with young people, to care for and nurture young people for whom trust is an issue of life and death; and to be held within the confines of a regime that punishes non-compliance, assertive communication and expression of need. These are the very thing as youth workers we aim to develop with our young people; increased agency, independence of thought and the ability to live as part of a group and to withstand the hierarchies, authority and power dynamics inherent within social structures. Can a Secure College do that?

Keeping children and young people away from their family and communities (Leicester’s ‘Pathway’ Secure College will house 12-17 year olds from the entire county as well as further afield) will only exacerbate feelings of insecurity, isolation and inability to relate to others. Family is often the first resource children and young people lose as a result of criminal activity and often, the single most important resource in developing non-criminal identities.

The Howard League’s recent 2 year investigation into Sex in Prisons, the report of which was launched last week, observes the enormously detrimental and harmful impact of incarceration upon children and young people for whom sexual and emotional maturity is in process. For many children and young people, experiences of imprisonment can create severe delays and damage to burgeoning sexual and personal identities, often enhancing and stimulating further criminal activity.

Can a Secure College guarantee as part of the contract, to undertake to care for children and young people who very often have been the victims of multiple crimes? To support children and young people to cope with and to recuperate from the profound traumas life has often taken them through, through no fault of their own? Adults cause more trauma to children than the other way around, and adults supposedly have the skills and experience to help children and young people grieve, understand and grow as a result of the impact of life.

Can Secure Colleges do that?

The focus of the Government’s response to the Secure Colleges Consultation is not on the development and growth of young people at all.

Is it informed by the Swedish approach, whereby young people are housed in ‘micro-family’ units, treated as people and given opportunities to develop as part of a community?

“The key to their philosophy is recreating a family environment – The young people live in “micro families” in houses scattered throughout the village.

“In 25 years, we’ve had three or four violent incidents,”

But there is little in the way of hard outcomes evidence, apart from a study commissioned by Hassela that carried out phone interviews with students who had completed the programme in 2003-04. It recorded that 90% of the girls and 53% of boys described themselves, one year after “graduation”, as being “well established, drug free and not involved in crime”. (Maggie O’Kane in The Guardian, Wednesday 25 June 2008)

No, it is not. The principle difference between the UK and the Swedish models is that where in Sweden, young people sentenced for criminal activity are primarily people, under the UK model, young people sentenced for the same acts, are primarily criminals.

The Secure College proposal (in the Government’s mind, to be rolled out across the country, providing fewer centres in which to hold young people nationally) has a focus on the cost-savings available via the size and scale of the new proposals and the potential for diverse contributions (via a supply chain) as part of the outsourcing of educational facilities. In line with the rest of this government’s approach to criminal justice, this solution relies on concentrating larger numbers of people into fewer establishments with fewer, less trained staff and access to the same (if not fewer) resources. So far, the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda led by Chris Grayling has resulted in a sharp rise in assaults on staff, increases in self harm and self-inflicted deaths in prison, less time out of cells, less purposeful activity and less access to rehabilitative programmes. That is with adults (aged 18 and above); perhaps Secure Colleges will avoid any of those problems and create real opportunities for incarcerated children.

The Secure College is designed, on paper, to prove that education and training during imprisonment are the solutions to young people’s criminal activity.

While none of that is a bad ambition or one to be dismissed, it is not the same as understanding the complexities involved in a child sentenced for a violent crime and wanting to work with him to create a life in which he can function as an independent adult, with responsibilities, integrity and with personal values for which he feels accountable.

Wouldn’t we like a ‘Secure College’ to do that?

A copy of Secure colleges: A dangerous solution to children in trouble is available to view and download here.