Secure Schools continue the violence of youth incarceration despite COVID-19

Image description: On a pink and white background, there is a silhouette of a child on a swing set amidst prison bars. It looks as though the child is breaking through the bars.

Since 1998, the state has imprisoned children at the Medway Secure Training Centre in Kent. Children have been locked in cages for more than two decades under the pretence that young “criminals” deserve to be ripped away from their support networks and ‘rehabilitated’ in an institution that is known to perpetuate violence against those under its custody. The Medway Secure Training centre claimed to provide young people with education as they served their prison sentences. Yet the centre was a site of violence and abuse that prevented the young people who were held there from accessing learning and freedom. Multiple damning reports from BBC Panorama and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) revealed decades of systemic physical, verbal and sexual abuse at the Medway Secure Training Centre.

The March 31 closure of the Medway Training Centre marks the beginning of the institution’s “transformation” into a so-called “secure school,” a disturbing process which has not slowed at all despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This new secure school comes as part of the government’s 2017 ‘Youth Justice Reform Programme’ that set out plans for a massive expansion of children’s prisons, despite overwhelming evidence that locking young people in cages is detrimental to their mental and physical health, relationships and futures.

We know that these prisons will continue to incarcerate society’s marginalised and vulnerable: poor people, black folks, people of colour (poc), disabled people, LGBTQIA+ people, undocumented migrants, and those who have survived sexual violence. As Corporate Watch has reported, the average monthly youth custody statistics in 2017 in the south-east indicated that 45% of those in custody were black, 15% mixed and 10% Asian or other. The UK government treatment of marginalised communities is characterised by state neglect and state violence. On the one hand the government has reduced many families to poverty through their policies of austerity and cutting services for children and young people, and on the other they have increased funding for police and prisons.

In 2019, the government awarded the Christian charity Oasis the management contract for the Secure School at Medway, which they will run in partnership with the Ministry of Justice. Oasis has a terrible track record when it comes to caring for children. As Corporate Watch reports, Oasis Academies have some of the highest rates of exclusion of any schools in the UK and have come under public criticism for their use of solitary confinement booths to punish youth who are ‘misbehaving’.

Oasis’ management of a Secure School that will cage majority black and brown children is particularly concerning given the long colonial history of Christian missionaries and charities ‘civilizing’ poor black and brown communities. As Zahra Bei from No More Exclusions states, “Given the highly racialised and classed nature of prison populations, this seems to me to be an unapologetic return to colonial Christian missionary practices and deficit thinking”. This points to how the violence perpetuated by the criminal justice system against young people is inseparable from the UKs history of capitalist exploitation and colonial expansion.

Following the closure of the Medway Secure Training Centre, Oasis is proposing to “transform” the site into a secure school by carrying out cosmetic refurbishments of the estate. The young people currently imprisoned at the Medway Centre will not be released, instead they have been transferred to other institutions.

The ongoing harm caused by childrens’ prisons has been exacerbated by the UK government’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic. The guidelines around COVID-19 prevention for the children detained in Secure Training Centres (STCs), Young Offenders Institutions, and Secure Children’s Homes are the same as the horrifyingly inadequate guidelines for adult prisons. The sub-par “prevention” methods pose a very real threat to children and adults in prison who are already suffering immensely at the hands of the carceral state. Prison visits have been suspended across the country, isolating people inside even more during a time in which community care and support are more important than ever. Fifteen people in prison have already died from COVID-19 in the UK. The virus can have deadly implications for both adults and children. Everyone in prison is immunocompromised and unable to practice social distancing, due to shared and cramped facilities, food lacking in nutritional value and inadequate health-care. The only way to prevent mass death during this public health crisis is to release everyone incarcerated.

Oasis and the Ministry of Justice should not move ahead with these re-branded childrens’ prisons, ever more pressingly so during COVID-19. They should not keep kids inside prisons, but release them to their communities and ensure they are able to access safe housing and care so they can self-isolate, social distance and stay alive.