What is a Young Offenders Institution?

Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) were introduced under the Criminal Justice Act of 1988, but previous to that, young offenders had been housed in specialised centres since the beginning of the 20th century. Namely, in 1902, the first borstal was opened in Borstal, Kent, which took in young offenders (those under the age of 21) sentenced to “borstal training”, a programme intended to reform and educate them.

Nowadays, any child aged 10 or over is considered criminally responsible in England and Wales, so young offenders range from 10 years old to 20 years old. Any offenders 10- 15 years are held in secure children’s homes which are very different to YOI; they provide much more hands-on intensive care and support as well as full time education to replicate school. Some YOIs cater for juvenile offenders, specifically those aged 15-17 years, but most 15-17-year olds will be put in Secure Training Centres, such as Medway, Oakhill, or Rainsbrook. 18-20-year old offenders will be sent to Young Offender Institutions. Typically, a convicted criminal is called a young offender until their 21st birthday, at which point they will be sent to an adult prison. In some cases, when prison officers feel it is necessary or appropriate, younger prisoners will remain in YOI until they turn 22.

The regime of a YOI is quite similar to that of an adult prison. The main difference is that an adult prison requires a higher staff to prisoners’ ratio. The other main difference is that in a Young Offender Institution, inmates are required to take part in at least 25 hours of education per week, with the intention to give them the opportunity to learn in a “normal” manner. There are often vocational courses and workshops available to allow young convicts to develop practical and employable skills, so that they are more inclined to gain lawful employment upon release.

The two biggest issues in the UK’s YOIs is violence and ill mental health. Mental health is a huge issue among young men particularly, suicide being the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49. Combine this with a society of toxic masculinity and you create violent tendencies. Combine that with a criminal background, and then being locked in a cell for up to 20 hours of the day, and you’re asking for trouble. In fact, three quarters of offenders released from YOI will re-offend within 12 months.

Many people believe that the staff to prisoner ratio needs to be heightened vastly, to provide young prisoners the support they really need. There is also the lack of NHS funding and availability which puts a huge strain on the system – instead of being able to give young offenders the mental health care they need, they are instead forced to segregate them, which only makes things worse.

How are HMYOI Altcourse trying to help young offenders?

HMP Altcourse is a category B men’s private prison and YOI located in the Fazakerley area of Liverpool. The prison has been operated by G4S since its opening in 1997. The prison receives prisoners from courts in Lancashire, Merseyside, Cheshire, and North Wales, holding a vast population of 1,148 men (as of November 2017).

It is split into six accommodation wings, outlined below.
– Beechers: Detainees held on remand or short-term sentences.
– Canal: Detainees held on medium-to-long term sentences and for detainees facing behavioural problems who could also benefit from a more stringent regime.
– Foinavon: Detainees with varying sentences and who partake in workplace training schemes.
– Furlong: Detainees held during their induction period (Usually 3 to 5 days) and for drug or alcohol users to detox before being integrated into the general population.
– Melling: Vulnerable Prisoners (i.e. sex offenders, convicted former police and prison officers, debt etc.).
– Reynoldstown: Induction wing.
– Valentines: Detainees held on medium-long term sentences and partaking in vocational training schemes.
The young offenders are housed among adult offenders, with the exception of the induction wing, Reynoldstown, where young offenders and adult males are separated.

What does the November 2017 inspection results tell us about HMYOI Altcourse?

Seemingly, the induction of young offenders is well structured and provides comprehensive information and support. Induction is delivered the day after arrival, and peer support was provided upon arrival, with weekly check ins, which was considered very helpful by the inspectorates.
There is also the Kinex team, a group of peer workers who provide support for young men having difficulties at the YOI. They encourage them to take part in a range of activities to reduce the time they spend in their cells. Young prisoners are always kept in a cell with other young prisoners. This is protocol to reduce the risk of bullying and grooming of younger prisoners. During the inspection, however, there was one cell which contained three young prisoners and one older prisoner, but as soon as management were made aware of this they acted immediately and moved the older prisoner to a different cell.

There are other initiatives which are aimed at improving the mental health of the young men and combatting the violent behaviour of the inmates. The Birds of Prey Programme allows young men to look after birds such as hawks, kestrels and owls. The birds are often involved in family fun days at the prison to lift the spirits of prisoners and their families and provide entertainment through an impressive air show. The prison director Steve Williams said that since the arrival of the jail birds, there has been a reduction in self harm and violence in the prison.

The Duke of Edinburgh award scheme encourages the young men to take part in physical and practical challenges in the gym and outdoors. Set up in 1956, the scheme aims to teach inmates new skills and teamwork, while also building their confidence and giving them a purpose behind bars.
There is also an organisation called Reflux which provides funding for four chaplains to visit young prisoners who don’t have frequent family visitations, providing them with emotional and/or religious support as they require.
Furthermore, new prison staff are now given mental health awareness training upon their arrival to ensure they are qualified to care for prisoners with any issues and support them in the best way possible.

Overall, there have been some great developments in initiatives to support young adults. However, despite the progress in different schemes and programmes, the inspectorates felt that there was a lack of an overarching strategy to identify the root of the issue and hence meet the needs of the young males. This was one of the recommendations made by the inspectorates. But from the 2018 action plan from Altcourse, we can see that they were developing a Young Adult Strategy to assess, develop, and support young men both inside the YOI as well as during their transition to release/the adult regime. There were also complaints from young prisoners that there were not enough staff on duty to respond to problems they were experiencing. We hope that Altcourse will recognise this issue and increase staff funding in order to provide the necessary support for young offenders in the future.

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