By Frances Crook
Before this week there were only two details that we knew about the Ministry of Justice plans for a 'secure college' – that it would be the biggest child prison in the country and that staff would be able to restrain children for 'good order and discipline'. Beyond the semantics, this means that officers could use physical force to get children to do what they’re told, a practice found to be illegal in the past.
One of the most controversial aspects of the proposals is to incarcerate girls and boys together: only five per cent of children behind bars are girls. We know that girls in the criminal justice system have disproportionately horrific backgrounds of rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence and exploitation. This is why the only people who think it is a good idea to dump a few damaged girls into a super-sized prison dominated by boys are in the government.
In response to concerted questioning on the safety of this scheme, the prisons minister, Jeremy Wright, attempted to reassure the House of Commons during a debate on the proposals this week. And that is how we learnt the third detail of the secure college: the ‘complex needs’ of these girls would be acknowledged by creating a mother and baby unit. A prison within a prison, for children with children.
Aside from being fundamentally inhumane, this is a bizarre response to meeting girls' underlying needs and an admission that the Ministry of Justice doesn’t know how to keep them safe.
When you have big institutions, the girls are at risk of sexual assault and exploitation. More subtly than this, it is not just about the levels of violence – sexual, or otherwise – it is that girls cannot flourish because there are so few of them and the institution is designed by men for men. It was only a few years ago that girls were removed from G4S Oakhill secure training centre because of the levels of violence: girls have never been incarcerated there since.
This will be a prison with perhaps 20 girls and 300 boys, supervised by very few poorly-trained staff. Is the plan for a mother and baby unit an admission of despair? The horrific stories of sexual abuse of children in Medomsley where more than 600 boys appear to have been the victims of sexual abuse by staff are only just emerging. Who will take responsibility in decades to come when we find that the Titan prison was a centre of sexual abuse and violence?
If the government really wants to transform youth custody, it needs to look at what works to keep children safe. First and foremost, this is where children will live. It is a home. The evidence shows that small intensively-staffed environments holding not more than 10 children, keep children safe and address their behaviour. In such a well-resourced environment, and with a balanced ratio between girls and boys, then it can be possible to mix the genders in a safe way. Secure children’s homes already provide this for the handful of children who require custody: we do not need to reinvent the wheel, we should invest money into what is already working.
Yet the government is ploughing on with its Titan mistake and still intends to gamble children’s lives and more than £80 million of taxpayers' money. The Ministry of Justice has blocked Howard League research into sex behind bars, which covers consensual and coercive sex in prisons as well as child sexual development. It is all too easy to turn a blind eye to the realities and risks of prison.
But if a girl becomes pregnant in the secure college, then the government has planned for that. There’ll be a specially adapted cell for her and her baby.
Frances Crook is chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the oldest penal reform charity in the United Kingdom.
The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.