Cookham Wood: an example of ‘a prison service in crisis’

Barbed wire, Flickr under creative comms licence, Terry Freeman

One in four boys feel unsafe at Cookham Wood young offenders institution near Rochester, Kent, according the inspection. The latest report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, following an inspection last August, found that overall violence was higher since the previous inspection in January, when it was revealed that more than 100 violent incidents had been recorded in a six-month period.

Due to ‘unnecessarily cumbersome’ unlock procedures, many of Cookham Wood’s 161 residents, who are aged between 15 and 18, were found to be kept locked in their cells, whilst some are permitted less than four hours a day outside their cells. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke reported that ‘the lack of time out of cell restricted access to education, interventions and meaningful interaction with staff and other boys’, adding that the situation was regretful as ‘there were many skilled staff and partners who were keen to work with boys to help them progress’.

Staff shortages remain a pressing issue, despite reported efforts by the Prisons and Probation Service to put more officers in post and train still more. The POA union for prison and correctional workers said that Cookham Wood was an example of ‘a prison service in crisis’ and stated that ‘unacceptable’ levels of violence would persist ‘until such time as there are enough staff in place to operate a safe, decent and secure regime’.

The rehabilitative goal of imprisonment was fundamentally undermined by the staffing issues, with inspectors painting a bleak picture of ‘a custody regime which kept [prisoners] locked in cells while skilled and enthusiastic professional waited for them in empty rooms’. Difficulties in getting the boys out of their cells to attend group-based education and therapy sessions, a wide range of which are reportedly provided at Cookham Wood, led to a ‘significant waste’ of resources.

The report noted that Cookham Wood had ‘redeeming features’ including a retinue of education courses such as art therapy, managing emotions and resilience groups, but due to a lack of escort officers, more than a third of planned groups had been cancelled.

Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform, stated: ‘No child is safe in Cookham Wood prison. Violence is rife. Staff are resorting to draconian punishments. It is shocking that boys as young as 15 are being held in such conditions…. This is a prison regime that lacks affection and kindness and imagination and skill. It is damaging children.’

The charity’s free and confidential advice line for children and young people in custody received more than 100 enquiries in the last year either from or on behalf of children in Cookham Wood. One enquirer was a 15-year-old boy with significant mental health problems, who claimed to have been locked in his cell all day on Christmas Day and allowed only one exercise session between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.

First published Wednesday January 10, 2018

Author: Lucie Boase

Lucie Boase is a paralegal specialising in actions against the police. She is Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) committee member and co-ordinates YLAL South West

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