Young offenders' institutions are more violent than men's prisons and conditions are getting worse, HM Inspector of Prisons has warned, as the number of assaults soars.
Inspectorate chief Charlie Taylor warned that youth prisons were “storing up real problems for the future” by failing to rehabilitate or educate child convicts.
Youth detention centers have seen a 30 per cent rise in assaults in the past year, with 297 incidents per 100 children – up from 229 in 2020/21. Self-harm had also increased by 37 per cent in the past year, according to Mr Taylor's review.
A shortage of corrections officers means children are locked up for many hours a day to try to curb disorder.
One child said it was “mental torture, just seeing daylight for 30 minutes a day.” “That's 3-5 hours a week,” they added.
At Werrington Young Offenders' Institution, near Stoke-on-Trent, prison staff had to deal with children climbing parts of the estate and then refusing to come down. On several occasions, staff have had to call in support from a special prison management team after rival groups of children started fighting each other.
Inspectors highlighted an incident of disorder that prompted staff to call for the use of specially trained dogs and explosives that produce a flash of light and a loud noise to control unruly inmates.
They said children at Werrington, which houses 89 boys aged between 15 and 18, had described being “hypervigilant when they leave their cell”. They were afraid to move around the prison in case staff accidentally went to the wrong area and were confronted by other children with whom they had disagreements.
At the time of the inspection in August this year, there was a significant shortage of prison officers due to sick leave and injury, meaning there were only 58 of the target of 115 officers available.
Although violence has increased across the juvenile offender estate, the number of children held in these institutions has fallen from 939 in 2015/16 to 435 in 2022/23.
The vast majority of the 435 children detained are aged between 15 and 18 and male. More than half are from a minority ethnic background. Around 66 per cent were in local authority care and 12 per cent had children of their own.
There has also been an increase in the number of children convicted of violence, up to 65 per cent from just 33 per cent in 2015/16.
Mr Taylor said child offenders often did not trust staff and warned government ministers against introducing pepper spray as a way to help officers control violent incidents.
He said: “Not even a third of the children could name a single member of staff who they believed would help them if they had a problem.”
“Our report shows how poor trust between staff and children already is, and our inspections continue to find a lack of key activities that will improve trust and behavior which would be much more productive and would much better serve public protection with over time”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The number of children in custody has fallen by 79 per cent since 2010 as a result of early intervention work and the wider use of strong community sentences.”
They said those children who remain “have often committed the most serious offenses and have extremely complex needs”. They added that the Ministry of Justice was “recruiting a specialist youth justice workforce trained to work with extremely vulnerable children”.