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


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