Inspectors report levels of violence ‘too high’ at young offenders institution in Kent

Levels of violence among child criminals are “too high” and need to be tackled as a priority, according to a report.

Inspectors raised concerns about the conditions at Cookham Wood Young Offender Institution (YOI) in Kent, which holds up to 188 boys aged between 15 and 18.

It was branded “not sufficiently good” in all areas of an inspection in September after a deterioration in quality of care since 2018.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke called on managers to prioritise “conflict resolution work” to reduce the levels of violence.

He said: “The number of violent incidents remained too high and the need to keep children apart from each other had a negative impact on their regime.

“Staffing shortages and redeployment of specialist conflict resolution staff to support the regime compounded the problem.”

Most of the inmates are aged 17 and almost half (45.6% or 78 offenders) are serving time for a primary offence of violence against the person.

The problems were raised as the site was running at “near capacity” with offenders transferred from Feltham A YOI in the wake of there being an “extraordinary” plunge in safety levels at the west London institution, prompting inspectors to call on Justice Secretary Robert Buckland to intervene and tackle the concerns raised.

Mr Clarke added: “Work was in place to resolve conflict, supported by a comprehensive behaviour management strategy, but much of this was impeded by the shortage or regular redeployment of staff.

“In addition, too much low-level poor behaviour went unchallenged and too little was done to encourage fuller engagement among children.”

Use of force by staff had increased and was high, according to the report.

Just over a quarter of children (28%) were locked in their cell during the school day with access to the gym and library restricted. Most had just five hours a day during the week and two hours at weekends outside their cells, inspectors added.

Mr Clarke also said the lack of suitable accommodation for children being released was “very concerning” but a “family therapist” project to support an offender’s family ties demonstrated some good practice.

He added: “At this inspection we saw many hard-working staff and managers, and some improvements were evident, but so was some deterioration.

“In the coming year, progress at Feltham will hopefully ease population pressures at Cookham Wood and the prospect of new staff provides some assurance that managers will be better placed to resolve the problems we identified.”

Helga Swidenbank, executive director for Youth Custody Service, said: “This is a disappointing report and I am already taking decisive action to improve conditions for young people at Cookham Wood.

“We are bringing in 54 more prison staff to tackle violence, provide young people with more one-to-one support and make sure they get time out of their cells.

“The prison is also increasing incentives and privileges and twinning with a local football club to boost rehabilitation, while 10 staff have completed training for the new degree-level specialist youth justice role.”

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