Young Offender Institutions

What is a Young Offender Institution?

Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) are prisons for 15-21 year olds. They are run by the Prison Service as part of the prison estate as a whole.

YOIs are distinct from Secure Training Centres and Local Authority Secure Children's Homes, which focus on different types of youth offenders and therefore have different staffing and accommodation specifications.

The core distinction is that Young Offender Institutions have a lower staff to offender ratio, reflecting the focus of these institutions on incarceration as opposed to rehabilitation and care. YOIs are also generally larger. Perhaps the best-known YOI in England is Feltham in west London.

Young offender wings also exist within adult prisons.


Young Offender Institutions were introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, but special centres for young offenders have existed since the 19th century.

The idea originated with the Gladstone Committee in 1895 as an attempt to reform young offenders. The first institution was opened in 1902 at Borstal Prison in Kent – and the name 'borstal' has become synonymous with the system.

The 'Borstal Philosophy' was based on the regimes of late 19th century and early 20th century public schools, advocating military-style discipline (including widespread corporal punishment) and emphasising work training and skills acquisition.

The Criminal Justice Act 1982 abolished the borstal system, replacing it with a network of youth custody centres.

Young Offender Institutions are today regulated by the Young Offender Institution Rules 2000, which are effectively the equivalent of the Prison Rules 1999 that apply to adult prisons in the UK.

In December 2007 a pilot scheme was launched which aimed to stop first-time young offenders going to court unnecessarily and prevent them from re-offending. Under the Youth Restorative Disposal (YRD) scheme, first-time offenders aged between 10 and 17 who had committed a low-level minor offence would have to explain their actions and apologise to their victim. The apology could be given in either oral or written form.

It was suggested the scheme would enable police to deal with minor cases more speedily and efficiently, allowing them to concentrate on more serious crime. The pilot, which was set to end in 2009, was to be followed by an evaluation to decide whether it should be rolled out nationally.

In December 2010 the Coalition government published a Green Paper entitled 'Breaking the cycle: A public consultation on effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders.' The paper sets out how the Ministry of Justice proposes to "break the destructive cycle of crime" and ensure offenders make amends to the victims or communities for harm they have caused. The consultation on the paper's proposal closed in March 2011.

In its response published in June 2011, the Government stated that within the youth justice system it would end the current high level of central performance monitoring and develop a risk based monitoring programme centred on three key outcomes:

reducing the number of first time entrants to the youth justice system;
reducing reoffending;
and reducing custody numbers.

The Public Bodies Act provided for the functions of the Youth Justice Board to be transferred to a newly created Youth Justice Division in the Ministry of Justice.

Youth justice services would in future be locally determined and driven; they would maximise value for money, be publicly accountable through a Minister, and be lighter-touch. Underperforming Youth Offending Teams would be targeted, freeing up the best performing teams to provide greater opportunity to innovate.


Young Offender Institution's have historically been the target of criticism from both the public and Government. Problems at YOIs have included suicides, bullying and unsafe conditions for prisoners. YOIs and juvenile establishments have the highest assault rates of any prisons in England and Wales.

Critics of YOIs argue that imprisonment is inappropriate for young people. The majority of those in Young Offender Institutions have complex educational, social and often mental health needs, which critics say are often not addressed. Lack of resources and intimidating atmospheres are said to hamper rehabilitation work. Indeed, some critics argue that the effect of incarceration has the opposite effect: with little to occupy them and in the company of other offenders, detainees may be put on the road to a life of crime.

A number of modern Young Offender Institutions have attracted particular criticism for their violence and disorder.

The former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, condemned Feltham Young Offender Institution as "one of the worst" prisons in the system, with "Dickensian" conditions, racism and violence. The Prison Service was accused of "a shocking catalogue of failure" over the killing of Asian teenager Zahid Mubarek by a racist cellmate at Feltham.

However, in 2001 Sir David singled out Swinfen Hall Young Offender Institution in Staffordshire as an example to other institutions; a place "in which the needs as well as the characteristics of young, adolescent prisoners, are understood and catered for."

Following the inquests into the tragic deaths of Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood in 2004, the coroners recommended a review of the use of restraint in juvenile custody. Gareth died whilst being restrained; Adam took his own life after being restrained.

In March 2008, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report into the use of restraint in Young Offender Institutions, Secure Training Centres and secure children's homes, which contained 33 conclusions and recommendations for action by the Government and the Youth Justice Board.

The Government subsequently established an independent review into the use of restraint in juvenile secure settings. The review, which reported back in December 2008, made 58 recommendations.

The report stated: "Whilst on occasion restraint is essential to ensure the safety of young people or staff, it places all concerned at risk." And warned: "We learned very early on in the review that there is no such thing as 'entirely safe' restraint. Restraint is intrinsically unsafe. Even where it does not end in physical injury the experience and the memory can be profoundly damaging psychologically."

In January 2011, the second inquest into the death of 14 year old Adam Rickwood, the youngest person to die in a British prison, found that he had been subjected to an unlawful restraint technique shortly before he took his own life. Responding to the verdict the Youth Justice Board said it "deeply regrets" his death, but welcomed "the coroner's acknowledgment that the YJB systems in place today are clearly 'incomparably better than they were'."

According to the YJB, since Adam died in 2004, the circumstances in which children are accommodated in secure training centres "have changed dramatically" and in addition "a substantial range of improved measures" are now in place for safeguarding children and young people in STCs.

In March 2012, the YJB published its development plans for the secure estate for children and young people, following an extensive consultation exercise, which included seeking the views of children and young people in the secure estate.

The development plans outline the YJB’s proposals for the current spending review period until 2015.


Monthly statistics on the population in custody of children and young people within secure children's homes (SCHs), secure training centres (STCs) and young offender institutions (YOIs).

Custody population for children and young people

For November 2012, the population of the secure estate for children and young people, for under 18 year olds was 1,551. This is a decrease of 44 from the previous month and a decrease of 485 from the previous year.

For November 2012, the overall population of the secure estate for children and young people, including those aged 18 years old, was 1,692. This is a decrease of 75 from the previous month and a decrease of 508 from the previous year.

Occupancy Trends

For November 2012, the overall occupancy rate for the secure estate for children and young people, including those aged 18 years old, was 70%, compared to 73% from the previous month.

Source: Ministry of Justice – 2013


“Custody continues to play an important part in the youth justice system for the small number of children and young people for whom a community sentence is not appropriate.
“However, this small group comprises some of the most troubled and disengaged young people in our communities.
“It is essential that, during a period in custody, each young person is able to access services and support that enable them to lead a successful, fulfilled and crime-free life on return to their community.”

YJB; foreword to ‘Developing the Secure Estate for Children and Young People in England and Wales – Plans until 2015’.