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I am deeply disappointed, if unsurprised, to hear about conditions at HMYOI Cookham Wood in today’s HMI Prisons inspection report

My team visited Cookham Wood last month to hear from children about what it’s like to live there. They were worried about safety, weapons, dangerous gate slips (where boys who are being kept separate slip through gates, leading to attacks), poor education and a chaotic regime. 

We asked one boy what the most important thing he wanted people to know about Cookham Wood is and he said, “Safety. I don’t feel safe here in this prison.” 

And it is all too clear why they don’t feel safe. My team spoke to boys who had been assaulted frequently, including being stabbed with makeshift knives. One child said “I’m confused how they allowed it to happen.” 

On conflict, one boy said, “There’s not a single community, not one landing that is at peace.” Another said, “Kids are afraid.” 

One boy said, “Cookham is the worst YOI.” Another said, “Cookham is worse than most HMPs [adult prisons].” 

Staff and boys saw weapons as universally present. Boys said that little action was being taken to remove them. One boy said that it was easy to have weapons and there was “not a lot of punishment” for having them. Another boy said, “Everybody is carrying weapons.” 

One boy told us that there had been an increase in the number and severity of type of weapons. He said, “Before it was plastic shanks, but now it’s Rambos [large knives].” 

All children deserve to be safe, but it’s important to note that 45 (or 58%) of the children living at Cookham Wood have not been convicted of a crime and may never be. They are remanded there. The brutalising experience of children on remand forced to live in dangerous conditions undermines the idea of presumption of innocence. 

We have to remember that the children in Cookham Wood are children. They are usually children who have experienced huge adversity and trauma – many have been in care, or have acute mental health needs. We need to reimagine the way we respond to these children, so that they are not only safe, but can start to rebuild their lives and go on to succeed rather than reoffend. Because currently there’s not sufficient ambition for children in custody. One boy in Cookham Wood said, “The education is not really beneficial.” He described a 3-hour session where the only task was to write three good things about himself on a worksheet. 

In my Family Review last year, I pointed out many of these concerning issues in the youth secure estate and recommended a new vision for secure care. It’s time for change and reform now so that these children can grow up to be happy and successful adults, who contribute to society.  

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