My new book, Splintered Light, comes out next week. It’s about three teenagers, Leah, Linden and Charlie, who don’t know each other, but whose lives collide dramatically twelve years after Leah’s mother was murdered in a local park. One of these three is a young man called Linden. At 17, he’s about to be released from Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution, where he’s been incarcerated for three years. Imagination can get you a long way when you’re writing fiction, but sometimes you need facts to help feed your imagination. So I started to research these prisons for young people, and what I read made me horrified by the way we treat young men and women who’ve committed crimes. Never mind justice, if we want young men and women to come out of prison in a safer state of mind than they went in, then this is not the way to go about it.
Last week, Nick Hardwick reported that one of these prisons, Glen Parva, is simply ‘not safe’. At Glen Parva, three young men have killed themselves in the past 15 months, and Hardwick described a culture of bullying, violence and excessive use of force by staff. He reported that inmates run protection rackets, there is hostage-taking and barricades are erected. One young man, Greg Revell, who was just 18, killed himself two days after arriving. Much of the violence Hardwick describes is among inmates. If their behaviour is uncivilised, so are the conditions. The Guardian reported that, ‘Twenty-eight percent of the teenagers and young men in the prison were locked up in cells all day, the report says. Cells were dirty, lacked basic facilities such as toilet seats, and were poorly ventilated.’
The situation at Glen Parva made its way into the newspapers, but the awful conditions are not new. In 2012, an inspection report on HYOI Wetherby reported, ‘A few days before the inspection, two boys had died elsewhere in youth custody. There had been a self-inflicted death at Wetherby itself the previous April. Walking round the establishment, the vulnerability of some of the young people held was obvious. One boy in the segregation unit with a lifelong medical condition that would have been hard for any teenager to manage, and who had exhibited very disruptive behaviour, asked me tearfully if I could take him home to his mum… A boy in health care, described to me as ‘low’, lay on his bed not speaking. All these boys were receiving good attention and care, but you feared for them all…’
At Feltham in 2013 HMYOI, the inspection team found, ‘meals were served much too early and there were very few opportunities for young people to eat together out of their cells. Young people complained to us, with some justification, that they were hungry…. Meals were mostly provided in the form of packs, eaten in cells, as early as 4.45 in the afternoon for dinner. Time out of cell averaged about 6 hours a day, but only 42% of young people said they had outside exercise each day. We were shown two cells which were to be occupied by two young people who had recently arrived: the plastic mattress and pillows in both cells were covered in graffiti.’
Much of that graffiti is gang-related. At Feltham, there are outbreaks of vicious gang-related violence. Many of these children have committed violent crimes, and have left real victims in their wake. But you don’t need a great deal of imagination to know that sending them to sleep in cells on graffiti-covered mattresses and eat meals on their own…. meals that leave them hungry…. is unlikely to solve anything. It’s far more likely to make alienated, vulnerable and isolated young men and women even more alienated, vulnerable and isolated.