Report reveals teenagers feel ‘obligation’ to fight fellow inmates at youth jail

Teenagers held at a youth jail feel they have an “obligation” to fight fellow inmates from rival gangs or postcodes, a watchdog report has revealed.

Inspectors found a “culture” has been established at Cookham Wood Young Offender Institution, in which boys follow “the rules of the game”.

It also emerged that the establishment in Kent has introduced a scheme known as Mindful Friday as part of efforts to promote good behaviour, while rewards for meeting daily targets included skincare face masks and shower gel.

At the time it was inspected in December, Cookham Wood (pictured) held 165 individuals aged 15 to 18.

HM Inspectorate of Prisons said: “Children we spoke to described the ‘rules of the game’ in relation to fighting: a culture had been established whereby there was an obligation on children to fight with children from a different postcode, gang or wing.”

This obligation ceased when an inmate moved onto the “enhanced” wing or the resettlement unit.

“Once there, children were ‘allowed’ to socialise with the former enemy because they now shared a desire to protect the enhancements and privileges available to them on these units,” the report said.

It also raised concerns over graffiti portraying racism, images of knives and gang-related signs which was evident in areas around the YOI.

All forms of violence except fights had increased since the previous inspection.

The inspectorate flagged up the number of complicated protocols in place to prevent fights or attacks.

“Keep-apart” restrictions meant it took more than 40 minutes to escort inmates from residential units to activities such as education or visits.

The findings chime with a report last month which detailed how inmates at another youth jail, Feltham YOI, said their gang-related loyalties were so great they would not be able to stop themselves assaulting members from a rival group.

An overarching, detailed behaviour management strategy at Cookham Wood focused on fairness and motivating positive behaviour, the inspection report said.

It added: “The strategy incorporated creative initiatives such as Mindful Friday, when children were encouraged to socialise proactively on music and sports projects, with rewards for those who engaged positively.”

In two areas of the YOI, inspectors saw “instant rewards” such as shower gel and face masks being given out to boys who had met a target for the day, for example cleaning or helping a member of staff to re-organise a room.

HMIP assessed Cookham Wood as insufficiently good in safety, purposeful activity and resettlement, but reasonably good in care.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke said: “Overall, we believed Cookham Wood to be an institution that was progressing but not yet to the point where this could be recognised in our healthy prison assessments.”

Dr Jo Farrar, chief executive of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service, said: “Cookham Wood holds boys with complex needs who have been convicted of serious crimes, so I’m pleased that inspectors have recognised that staff are providing good support and care.

“In these circumstances, it is not unusual for the institution to deal with gang allegiances brought in from the outside, but the Governor and his staff are working hard to manage this.

“The key worker scheme ensures each boy has a mentor and the conflict resolution team has been praised by inspectors for its impressive work changing attitudes and behaviours driven by rivalries between boys.

“The Governor and his team at Cookham Wood are already implementing recommendations made by inspectors to improve the regime and conditions.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Gareth Fuller / PA Wire.