An indictment of how we treat young offenders | Letters

Wally Harbert, Philip Hewitt, Heather Geddes and Jeanne Downton respond to an article asking why so many young people are being locked up in England

Chris Daw shows how young offenders are brutalised by the criminal justice system (The long read: ‘A stain on national life’: why are we locking up so many children?, 23 July). In the 1970s, many staff were appointed to children’s homes because of their army experience. When violence erupted, staff commonly struck the first blow.

As the responsible minister, the late David Ennals sought to change this, but was thwarted by Mrs Thatcher’s climb to power in 1979. Plans to develop staff training, improve care regimes and develop child assessment services were abandoned. The new priorities were to create harsher regimes and build more secure accommodation. By advocating what they called “short, sharp shocks” to children failed by the system, politicians believed they would promote better behaviour. The reverse was true.

Political rhetoric is still about instilling fear, which echoes the defining feature of the Windrush scandal. Much abuse in homes for asylum seekers and for young people with learning difficulties also has its origin in fear that is generated by untrained staff as a means of coping with challenging behaviour. We need an entirely new approach, beginning with staff learning how to avoid their response to frightened children and young people escalating into physical violence.
Wally Harbert
President, Association of Directors of Social Services, 1978-79

• The long read by Chris Daw is an indictment of our treatment of offenders. It is not surprising that there is no mention of the probation service, which has been wrecked by successive governments.

Nearly 40 years ago I was a probation officer in London when the service was a national probation and aftercare service. There was also a growing concept of “throughcare”. The probation officers who did this were committed, caring, experienced people who focused on rehabilitation and working through the courts. Young offenders were always seen as a priority. Things have changed but, as Daw’s article suggests, the need for effective interventions by properly trained people is more important than ever.
Philip Hewitt
Stevenage, Hertfordshire

• The long read was so sad. My experience of young offenders is that they are predominantly very vulnerable and have little confidence in the adults in their life, and tend to respond to the expectations and control of the peer group as a way of feeling that they belong somewhere. They can feel chronically unsafe, with no one to rely on or confide in. I have often wondered if recidivism is actually a “need” to be confined in prison, as it may feel safer there than out in society.
Dr Heather Geddes
Educational psychotherapist, Teddington, London

• Chris Daw’s searing description of the youth penal system is a good demonstration of the need for earlier therapeutic intervention. The services that used to provide such support included child and adolescent mental health services, with access to educational psychologists, psychiatrists and specialist social workers who work with families; youth clubs; the probation service; and social services. These have all been cut drastically. The overworked staff rarely have time to engage with families, teachers and children in constructive ways. I worked as a social worker in such a service in Birmingham education department until the 1990s, and can recall many families and children who were helped to achieve a happier life.
Jeanne Downton
Lichfield, Staffordshire

Letters

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Child imprisonment is wrong – let’s end it | Letter
Letters: Representatives of Article 39, Inquest, the Howard League and the National Association for Youth Justice join others to announce the launch this month of England’s first collaborative campaign to end the incarceration of under-18s

Letters

08, Nov, 2018 @5:48 PM

Article image
Our mentally ill daughter was left to die | Letters
Our daughter was sent to a brutal, chaotic and uncaring place 200 miles from home, writes one parent, while Keir Harding writes about how fear and neglect can prompt aggression in sufferers

Letters

25, May, 2018 @3:17 PM

Article image
Young offender institutions aren’t fit for purpose | Letter
Letter: Not only is incarceration ineffective in addressing their criminal behaviour, it perpetuates their experiences of violence and abuse, writes Pam Hibbert

Letters

29, Apr, 2019 @4:53 PM

Article image
Secure hospitals are not penal institutions | Letter
Letter: Very few patients in high secure hospitals have convictions for anything as horrible as Ian Brady’s crimes, and some have no criminal conviction at all, writes Mat Kinton

Letters

04, Oct, 2018 @5:27 PM

Article image
Mental health, Labour and the crisis in criminal justice and jails | Letters
Letters: Self-harm has escalated at the same time as prison healthcare funding being cut, writes Prof Pamela Taylor; and Labour needs to face up to its often-woeful past in contributing to the current crisis, says Prof Joe Sim

Letters

07, Feb, 2018 @6:01 PM

Article image
Mental ill-health and fair criminal justice | Letter
Letter: Too many people are sent to prison without magistrates or judges seeing an up-to-date pre-sentence report, say experts including Keith Bradley, author of the Bradley report

Letters

21, Jun, 2019 @4:41 PM

Article image
‘Mental anguish’ and wider problems with IPP sentences | Letters
Letters: Nicolas Sanderson, who was involved in the creation of the sentence, corrects a common mistake. Mark Day says the government should eradicate this stain on our justice system

Letters

11, Jan, 2019 @4:50 PM

Article image
Let’s end fault-based divorce system now | Letters
Letters: Legal practitioners and charities help parents find solutions, but are hampered by the current system, write a range of professionals in the field

Letters

29, Nov, 2018 @4:40 PM

Article image
Youth justice system is 'failing vulnerable young offenders'
Lack of support for mentally ill young people in custody is putting lives at risk, say children's welfare charities

Mary O'Hara

05, Feb, 2013 @5:30 PM

Article image
A lack of justice for young people in our punitive society | Letters
Letters: Retired youth court judge David Simpson on the age of criminal responsibility and imprisonment, and retired solicitor Malcolm Fowler on delays in criminal cases

Letters

07, Nov, 2019 @6:10 PM