Anger as ‘chaotic’ G4S-run jail to remain open and plans for alternative facility postponed until 2023
A “dilapidated” youth prison where children have been subjected to “unjustifiable” and sometimes unlawful levels of force is to remain open, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) gesê het.
It comes as Die Onafhanklike can reveal that plans to open the UK’s first “secure school”, which the government has said is “critical” to its vision of youth custody, has been delayed for another year.
The government committed in December 2016 to phase out juvenile young offender institutions and secure training centres and to replace them with a network of secure schools, which they said would “place education, healthcare and purposeful activity at the heart of rehabilitation”.
The commitment was reaffirmed in the Conservative Manifesto in 2019, and the first facility was originally due to open last year. It was then postponed 2022, and has now been delayed until 2023.
Ministers said on Thursday that “urgent action” will be taken to improve conditions at Oakhill secure training centre, in Milton Keynes which holds 46 boys aged of 12-17, after Ofsted and prison inspectors found that the safeguarding systems for children at the centre were in “disarray”.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab was forced to act after he was put on notice by inspectors last month over the “chaotic” conditions at the G4S-run facility following a visit last month. He was given 28 days to respond.
Campaigners have called on the government to close Oakhill and have an “urgent rethink” about its approach to child imprisonment. The jail is the only secure training centre still open after two others, Medway, in Kent, and Rainsbrook, in Rugby, were shut down due to failings.
Ministers announced on Thursday that improvements had been implemented at Oakhill, including the appointment of a new director, “bolstered” staffing and training, more time out of cell and guaranteed access to 25 hours of face-to-face education each week.
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the response was inadequate.
“Children in trouble need care and support, but for the last three decades the boys and girls held in secure training centres have instead been harmed and abused," hy het gesê.
“These problems cannot be fixed by the appointment of a new director or the offer of extra training. The answer is to close Oakhill and ensure that the very few children who require custody are kept safe in local authority-run secure children’s homes.”
Carolyne Willow, director of charity Article 39, said the government’s decision was the “continuation” of a “long history of the government giving G4S unlimited chances to fulfil basic child protection obligations”.
She questioned why the MoJ “did not themselves” notice and deal with “chronic and severe failures” to keep children safe, and called for a judicial inquiry into the conditions at the centre.
“We know from past experience that the prison service sending in one of their own prison governors to try and rescue a child prison is the first step to closure, though G4S will continue to receive significant public funds for every day and week Oakhill stays open,”Het sy bygevoeg.
“These penal institutions have the suffering of children built into the walls; they cannot be redeemed.”
Steve Chalk, founder of Oasis, the charity that is set to run the new secure school, which will be located on the site of the now closed secure training centre Medway, vertel Die Onafhanklike the delay had been caused by the fact that the government was in the process of changing the law to enable a charity to run a custodial estate.
“Everybody’s concerned to get this up and running as fast as we can, especially now because of what’s happened to Rainsbrook and Oakhill. It’s widely understood that there really is a need for the secured schools," hy het gesê.
“We’re in a situation now where there is no secure training centre that’s fully operational. I think everyone knows that you need something different, and you need something more beneficial to young people. And you need something that is unique and offers them real hope.”
Some campaigners have criticised the secure school model. Ms Willow said: “Trying to build a child-centred secure children’s home on the site of a former prison is a doomed project, and this latest delay should force a government rethink.”
Prisons minister Victoria Atkins said: “The findings at Oakhill were completely unacceptable and we are considering all options. Action needs to be swift to ensure these vulnerable children are given the best chance to turn their lives around in a calm, safe and secure environment.”
The MoJ had not responded to a request for comment on the secure school delay by the time of publication.