Medway child prison will be site of experimental secure school, despite history of failure to protect children

Last month, Article 39 and 35 others wrote jointly to the Ministers responsible for child protection and child prisons urging them to abandon plans to open an experimental secure school on the site of Medway secure training centre.

A serious case review showed substantial failure both within the institution, and among local and national agencies, to keep children safe. This was followed by an inspection report, published on 29 January 2019, which revealed children had been recently unlawfully inflicted with pain as a form of restraint. The secure training centre transferred from G4S to Ministry of Justice management in July 2016.

We received a letter this week – see below – from Edward Argar MP, responsible for child prisons. He said he was also replying on behalf of Nadhim Zahawi MP, whose Ministerial portfolio includes child protection and safeguarding vulnerable children.

Given our joint letter was wholly about the safety and welfare of very vulnerable children, many of them in the care system, it is very disappointing that Minister Zahawi did not, at the very least, countersign the letter.

But the most astonishing part of the response is the Government’s explanation for using Medway secure training centre as its first experimental secure school:

“Medway STC stood out for several reasons – including location, our ownership of the site and the absence of any need to go through a potentially protracted and expensive planning application.”

Edward Argar MP, Youth Justice Minister

On location, official data published by the Ministry of Justice shows 58 children from the South East region of England were detained in December 2018. However, 228 children were detained within the region – meaning that 170 children were from outside the area. Over a quarter (27%) of children in custody are sent to the South East region. The Government’s own data therefore shows that extra provision is not required in this location.

Moreover, one of the documents produced by the Ministry of Justice to encourage companies to apply to run the first experimental secure school notes that there are no secure settings in England’s Eastern region – yet 77 children from that area are detained, according to latest figures.

That the Ministry of Justice owns the prison site has no credibility as a reason for choosing it as the place to pilot an institution meant to be completely different from existing child prisons.

There is a very long history of the prison service’s ownership of land, as opposed to children’s needs, determining where institutions are built. The location of Medway secure training centre itself was selected in the late 1990s because the prison service ran the nearby Cookham Wood young offender institution and Rochester prison.

Prior to its opening in 1998, Medway secure training centre was known as Cookham Wood secure training centre – showing its links to the adjacent prison. Its other neighbouring prison, Rochester, was once called Borstal prison, and was the site of the first ever experimental child prison – which opened in 1902.

Similarly, the Government’s avoidance of having to “go through a potentially protracted and expensive planning application” makes no sense if Ministers genuinely want to abandon penal institutions for children. Whenever a local authority or health body wishes to open a new residential service, for children or adults, they must go through the planning process.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:

“The Minister’s response signals his department continues to be trapped in a cycle of failure with the perpetual remodelling of child prisons. The first experiment in child prisons started in the same geographical location as the planned secure school. That was 117 years ago.

“If Ministers are truly behind replacing young offender institutions and secure training centres, they must surrender their dependence on prison land and prison property.

“And if they genuinely want secure schools to be secure children’s homes, as their promotional literature says, then why not build upon and develop the best of existing provision run by local authorities as part of their wider services to children and families?”

The Minister’s letter can be read here.
Our joint letter to the minister can be read here.

In December 2016, the Government announced it shares the long-term vision of Charlie Taylor (Chair of Youth Justice Board) to replace juvenile young offender institutions and secure training centres with secure schools.

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