Working with young people in secure accommodation

Jim Rose
Tuesday, 24 June 2014

In researching material for the 2nd edition of Working with Young People in Secure Accommodation – From Chaos to Culture, it was fascinating to review the changes that have taken place in the configuration and management of secure accommodation over the past 15 years or so. The review highlighted a number of achievements to be welcomed: numbers in custody are significantly down whilst, in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), considerable investment has resulted in greatly improved facilities for education and health provision. Across the YOIs, where the greatest changes needed to be made, issues such as officers retaining their uniforms and addressing young people by their surname no longer feature on agendas and staff are much more aware of the importance of safeguarding and the importance of engaging the young people in purposeful activities. 

Using the Audit Commission report, Misspent Youth (1996) and the House of Commons Justice Committee report, Youth Justice (2013) as ‘bookends’ for the period in review highlights the successes for youth justice services generally and secure accommodation in particular. Careful reading, however, also reveals the disturbing intractability of many of the difficulties associated with this key area of social policy, i.e. resettlement problems, with the continuing lack of coordination between key services for young people in housing, health, education and employment; high levels of re-offending; bullying; over use of physical means of control in custody and of particular concern to government, high costs!

Even some of the apparent successes, such as the reduction in numbers of young people in custody,  bring another set of issues as the decreasing number of ‘beds’ means that placement further away from home is more likely, exacerbating difficulties of family contact and resettlement opportunities.

Moreover, it is still the case that the idea of a single secure estate for young people has not been properly realised, not just in terms of consistent management arrangements but more fundamentally in evolving a coherent model for understanding the nature of the custodial task. The 2013 Justice Committee report suggests that fertile ground for such a model lies in recognising the critical significance of relationships as the basis for intervention with this group and the implications for practice that emerge from an increased awareness of what neuro-science and attachment theory teach us about human brain development.  Linking policy to practice through a thorough understanding of the consequences that early attachment experiences have on later behavioural patterns provides an alternative perspective on regime content and the essential qualities required of staff who work in custodial settings.

With the notion of large secure colleges as the government’s seemingly preferred way forward for secure accommodation, surely it is time to learn the lessons of recent years?  The smaller, residual groups of young people in secure accommodation present with a range of complex and challenging needs that a naive model of ‘education in a secure college’ will inevitably fail to address. The smaller scale of the secure estate offers the best opportunity for a number of years to establish a truly coherent network of locally based units, across which a consistent model of practice, underpinned by sound thinking, can be implemented.

Staffing, as ever, is critical as is the development of well supported managers who are tasked to ensure the regular availability of relevant training and supervision. 

Sustaining a network of smaller secure units and a practice model as outlined above would require a political will informed by a clear vision of what custody needs to offer these most demanding young people – a vision that must go beyond simplistic notions of education. That is the real challenge for working with young people in secure accommodation.