Hidden weapons, rising violence, staff shortages, and deteriorating standards of care - the latest report on Cookham Wood Young Offenders Institution makes for grim reading.
An unannounced inspection of the prison was conducted in June and uncovered a long list of problems outlined in a report published by Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons.
Among the most worrying findings was that officers had uncovered 30 weapons during a recent “lockdown search” of the prison; that numbers of violent incidents were “high and rising” and that some of those incidents were “serious with evidence of concerted attacks on individuals.”
Useful initiatives to tackle violent inmates had also lapsed, while the use of force by staff was high and “inspectors were not confident that all instances observed were justified.”
The report said new techniques to control incidents were urgently needed, and noted in particular the need to “replace the use of pain compliance on children.”
“Staff shortages at Cookham Wood have led to a restricted regime, where some children are locked in their cells for 22 hours a day, staff are reliant on violence to control children and assaults and serious injuries have become the norm" - France Crook, The Howard League for Penal Reform
Child safeguarding had deteriorated; issues or complaints had not been followed up; and relationships between staff and inmates were said to be “mixed”.
Many of the issues were attributable staffing cutbacks combined with the transition to new accommodation, which was itself listed as a plus point - having been designed to create smaller, more supportive “communities” within the prison.
A small list of positives included the quality of learning and skills provision; ongoing resettlement work, and an improved regime in the segregation unit - which was itself said to be a “poor environment”.
“We inspected Cookham Wood at a tough and challenging time,” said Mr Hardwick.
“A new governor had recently been appointed and there had been significant loss of staff, not all of whom had been replaced. The move to new accommodation had been successful, but had clearly been a significant management distraction.”
But he said there was “evidence that issues were beginning to be gripped” and there “remains every reason for optimism about the outlook at Cookham Wood.”
And he added: “risks remain and the need to recruit suitable new staff is fundamental to the future success of the prison.”
Michael Spurr, chief executive officer of the National Offender Management Service, said: “The Governor is actively tackling violence within the prison.
"Staff are being provided with additional training in behaviour management and all serious incidents are being referred to the police.
"Use of force has reduced and we are actively recruiting new staff to fill vacancies.
“This action will ensure that Cookham Wood is able to provide a safe and positive regime for the young people in its care.”
But Frances Crook, chief executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform, said the report showed cuts were pushing the system to breaking point.
“Reading this report, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is now government policy to put children in danger and to create an environment where violence is festering," he said.
“Staff shortages at Cookham Wood have led to a restricted regime, where some children are locked in their cells for 22 hours a day, staff are reliant on violence to control children and assaults and serious injuries have become the norm.
“The serious concerns identified by inspectors are common to most other prisons. However, this report shows that ill-thought government policies mean that the prison system cannot keep children safe. This is a new low.
“Howard League lawyers have been made aware of serious problems in recent months at Cookham Wood that mirror the issues raised by the Chief Inspector and we are pursuing individual cases.”
Stories you might have missed