‘A stain on national life’: why are we locking up so many children? | Youth justice

Gethin Jones is a man of wisdom, insight and compassion. He has an insider’s bitter understanding of life in care, youth justice, drug addiction and prison. In many ways, his story is one of all that is wrong with the criminal justice system when it turns its firepower on the young.

I spoke to Gethin late last year as I approached my 50th birthday. He and I are about the same age. In terms of our life journeys, that is where the similarities largely end. Now smartly dressed, balding, but looking every inch the successful professional that he is today, Gethin’s start in life could not have been more different.

His mother, a single parent to four children, had spent her childhood in care and had learning difficulties. With hindsight, Gethin understands that his mother’s history and struggles made it impossible for her to relate to her children in an ideal and entirely nurturing way. Without a hint of blame, he observes that he simply did not have the sort of family relationships and support that a child needs to thrive. Gethin soon found himself ensnared in the criminal justice system.

His first conviction was at the age of 11, the result of what he describes as “erratic behaviour”. A predictable pattern ensued: a year later he was in the care system; by 13 he had been expelled from school; at 14 he was sent to youth custody for the first time, came out, went back in, and before he knew it his childhood was gone for ever. He had spent most of his teens “behind the door”. And then things really took a turn for the worse.

Gethin reached the age of 20 and had not once seen a child psychiatrist, psychologist or any other professional with the time and skills to find out what was going on and to help him find a different way to live. Having been told by everyone in authority, throughout his childhood and teenage years, that he was destined not only for failure but for prison and drug addiction, it was unsurprising that the predictions came true.

An inmate having his head shaved at Aylesbury young offender institution, 2009. Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/Corbis/Getty Images

Gethin recalled one occasion when he was released from a young offender institution on a Friday, stole some cigarettes from the petrol station on the Saturday, was arrested and in a police station over the weekend, before being remanded back to custody by the magistrates court on the Monday morning. No matter the order made against him by the courts, Gethin would breach it and go back inside.

As soon as he “graduated” to adult prison, Gethin found heroin, having never taken it “on the out”. It became his driving force for the next decade, and he entirely gave up on any way of life beyond the drug, crime and prison. The most terrible irony of all is that his fierce intelligence was never extinguished. He knew exactly what he had become and why. Appearing before yet another court when he was 20, to receive yet another prison sentence, he told the judge: “What you see before you is what you created.”

The judge disagreed, dismissing all talk of rehabilitation, of giving Gethin a chance to pursue training and employment of some kind. “You are a professional criminal,” he pronounced. “You will never be a bricklayer or a plumber. You will never be anything.”

This was the verdict of the criminal justice system on Gethin Jones, a young man barely out of his teens. You can almost hear the cheers for the judge’s remarks from a certain brand of politician, from much of the media and, at election time, from plenty of voters.


Over the past 25 years, as a criminal defence lawyer, I have seen first-hand how criminal justice works, not just in Britain but around the world. And one of the most pointless and counteractive parts of the criminal justice system I have seen is the incarceration of children.

I am no apologist for violence and antisocial behaviour. My views on children in the criminal justice system, just as my views on the use of prison and the prohibition of drugs, do not arise from some sentimental, “soft”, liberal perspective. Quite the opposite – I am interested only in the hard facts as to what does and does not work in reducing crime, improving lives and, first and foremost, preventing as many people as possible from becoming victims.

In 1970, a new era of “getting tough” on young offenders really began to gather momentum with the incoming Conservative government. The number of juveniles locked up each year increased by 500% between 1965 and 1980. Earlier faltering steps towards a welfare-based approach to youth justice had well and truly come to an end. Utterly contradictory policies towards young offenders prevailed in the 80s and 90s, veering between the exploration of non-custodial alternatives and increased sentence lengths, introduced by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994.

Despite a reduction in the number of young prisoners in recent years, some innovations, such as mandatory detention for young offenders for certain weapons offences, have once again seen the return of the “get tough” approach. At no time in recent history have the conditions inside young offender institutions been more oppressive and violent than they are in 2020. Considered by many to be even more dangerous than adult prisons, establishments such as Feltham YOI, west of London, closely replicate the feral violence of custodial institutions in the Victorian age.

As one inmate put it after his release: “Literally every day I was there, you’d see a fight. It just happened all the time, literally all the time.” Another young man who was sent to Isis YOI in south-east London spoke of the sort of violence that erupted there: “Someone got stabbed in the neck in the shower. It was very gruesome and horrifying for me to see all the blood spurting out and someone on the floor nearly dying.”

For one teenager, Zahid Mubarek, Feltham was to mark the end of his young life altogether. Zahid was serving his first and only custodial sentence, for stealing some razor blades (value £6) and “vehicle interference”. Towards the end of his sentence, Zahid was allocated a new cellmate. Robert Stewart was a “psychopathic and violent racist”, and had already been involved in killing another inmate before he was placed with Zahid, who spent the last days of his life in constant fear.

Zahid Mubarek, who was murdered inside Feltham young offender institution in 2000.
Zahid Mubarek, who was murdered inside Feltham young offender institution in 2000. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/family of Zahid Mubarek

The prison officer who made the decision to place Stewart with Zahid apparently knew nothing of the previous murder. Nobody noticed that, slowly but surely, Stewart was dismantling a table in his cell. He eventually managed to separate one of the table legs and, in the early hours of the very day that Zahid was due to be released, battered him to the edge of death in his sleep. Zahid’s uncle, who saw him lying in a hospital bed, clinging to life, realised that there was no hope. “His injuries were so horrendous, I knew he would not be able to survive them,” he later recalled.

An inquiry into Zahid’s death heard that some of the officers at Feltham had engaged in a practice known as “gladiator” or “colosseum”, in which black or ethnic minority inmates were deliberately placed with known racists. It was said that bets were then placed on how soon violence would erupt in the cell.

So much for civilised 21st-century Britain. This is the society we have created and, just as with prison policy across the board and our approach to drugs, we have got it completely wrong. Not only are young offender institutions places of misery, violence and death (there is a suicide in a British young offender institution almost every month, and self-harm is at epidemic levels), but they also have precisely the opposite effect to that which is claimed by their advocates. YOIs, and in fact youth custody centres and juvenile facilities all over the world, are one of the most effective methods ever invented to increase rates of reoffending and worsen levels of crime by young people.

One former inmate, “Jason”, spoke of his stays in seven different institutions between the ages of 14 and 17. “At first it was a bit of a shock to the system not having your family around, and then I got used to it,” he said. Jason’s time inside was not put to waste. “How to weigh up drugs and sell them, how to make a profit on them, car theft. I’ve learned how to fight in jail. You’ve got to fight quick – it can only last a couple of seconds before you get stopped, so you’ve got to fight better. You go for hurting as soon as possible – fighting, kicking, biting, together.”

Young offender institutions are not only “universities of crime”, but a form of medieval survivalism, played out in gyms, corridors, dining halls and, for some of the most tragic victims of all – like Zahid – in bed, fast asleep.


‘Recidivism” – the tendency to reoffend – is a word that is largely confined to criminology lectures, official statistics and the occasional government report. It is not a headline-grabber like “hooligan”, “thug” or “teen gangster”. Few politicians get excited about statistics, still less about those that tend to undermine the prevailing public mood around election time.

Perhaps readers with an above-average interest in criminal justice policy may have read the word “recidivism” with a guilty lack of enthusiasm. You could be forgiven for doing so, when politician after politician advocates a “crackdown” on “antisocial behaviour”, “gang violence”, knives and even “feral youth”. In response, many elements of the news media duly oblige with copious acclamatory reports of such policies. Voters respond with approval in large numbers at the ballot box, in Britain and elsewhere, and parliament duly obliges by passing harsh sanctions for children and young people, whichever party is in power.

In the US, mandatory custodial sentences have long been a feature of the sentencing of children, even in some cases leading to the imprisonment of those under 18 for the rest of their natural lives. In England, we have been steadily moving in the same direction, as politicians respond – slavishly and without reason – to each round of media coverage of a youth “crimewave”. Escalating incidents of knife violence in recent years, specifically those involving young people, have led to the introduction of a mandatory custodial sentence for a first offence of threatening someone with a knife or a second offence of possessing one. The use of evidence, or of any form of analysis of what actually works to reduce youth crime, always gives way – in the end – to populism.

In 2019, the home secretary, Priti Patel, took the “tough on crime” rhetoric to a new level in British politics when she said that she wanted people, including young offenders, to “literally feel terror” at the thought of what would happen to them if they committed a crime. She has advocated increased use of custodial sentences, aggressive police action against young people on the streets in the form of greater use of “stop and search”, and a zero-tolerance approach to cannabis possession. Patel’s supporters could be heard cheering on this “war on crime”.

Throughout all of these waves of media and political tub-thumping about youth crime, and subsequent policies on child sentencing, one thing above all shines through: recidivism. Just as with the imprisonment of adults, the criminalisation – and incarceration – of young people simply does not work. I have lost count of the times I have patiently and calmly used unambiguous evidence to that effect, only to be met with a shrug of the shoulders and an admonition to think of “the victim”, “protect the public” or “impose punishment”.

The exercise yard at HM prison and youth offender institution in Portland, Dorset.
The exercise yard at HM prison and youth offender institution in Portland, Dorset. Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/Corbis/Getty Images

Criminalising children causes more crime and more victims – and locking children up even more so. Prison and drug reform are important to me, but a sea change in our handling of troubled children, in society as a whole, and not just in the criminal justice system, is the most important issue of all.

Despite all the media coverage around antisocial behaviour, knife crime and young people, we have actually seen a sharp decline in the overall number of recorded crimes committed by children. As with all recent crime figures, there has been a huge distortion in Britain as a result of dramatic reductions in police numbers and in the funding of the criminal justice system, including the courts, prosecutors and defence lawyers.

One explanation for falling crime rates in certain categories is undoubtedly that there are fewer police officers to make arrests, fewer prosecutors to bring charges and fewer courts to sentence offenders. But, on any view, the figures show that reduced use of custody does not mean big increases in crime by children – quite the opposite.

The Prison Reform Trust’s annual Bromley Briefing sets out in stark terms the countless dangerous, unfair and irrational outcomes of the child justice system. Despite a dramatic fall in the overall number of young people under 18 in custody (70% since 2009), the number of crimes committed by that age group has fallen even more (75%). This hardly suggests a link between increasing the incarceration of the young and the reduction of youth crime. Young inmates are many times more likely to have been in the care system than other children, which surely calls out for attention to what happens in care as a top policy priority, rather than simply locking up even more care-leavers.

Tragically, in what amounts to a stain on Britain’s national life, the proportion of young ethnic minority people in custody has increased in the past decade, along with assaults, use of physical restraint and self-harm incidents. In fact, the total number of violent incidents is higher than when there were three times the number of young inmates as there are today. We are brutalising children on a daily basis, all in the name of getting tough on crime. The media, politicians and the public are mostly looking the other way. Hundreds of the most damaged and vulnerable young people in our society face the daily risk of violence, self-harm and death, and we are all allowing this to happen.

But surely putting children through this dystopian nightmare must “teach them a lesson”, whatever the sentence? Dragged through the courts, given a dressing down by the judge, treated like what they are – criminals? Who would want to go through that twice? Or more? The answer is, of course, that nearly all of them end up back in the system – not twice, but countless times, and those who receive the “toughest” sentences do so the most.

Official figures show the shocking truth about the criminalisation of our children. More than 40% of young people subjected to the criminal justice process reoffend within 12 months. Imagine if a manufacturer were building cars that crashed at a rate of 40% a year, due to a design flaw. There would be an uproar. Vehicles would be subjected to factory recalls, safety certificates would be withdrawn and the offending business would be shut down by public demand. But the average young offender crashes not just once, but reoffends a staggering four times, after being sentenced by the criminal courts. With that shameful rate of failure, the youth justice system should be demolished altogether and rebuilt from the ground up.

The plain truth is that the “tougher” we get on young people, the more crimes they commit, the more victims we create, and the greater the total of human misery for our society.


Heroin took hold of Gethin, and was both available and, by the time he became hooked, acceptable as a form of escape in the prison environment. He explained how this had come about, after a history of disapproval of “smackheads” among the general prison population, for whom smoking cannabis had long been a more tolerated form of drug use. “In the mid-90s, they introduced mandatory drug testing, and that led to an explosion in heroin use in prison,” he explained. “It only stays in your system for a couple of days, whereas weed is there for weeks.” Yet another perverse manifestation of the law of unintended consequences in the criminal justice system – a generation of heroin addicts, created directly by a testing policy that had been given no real thought before it was introduced.

Years passed, and Gethin got out and went back in – much of his third decade of life was also spent inside. He noticed a change over the years. “It used to be 80% career criminals, and 20% addicts and the mentally ill,” he told me, “Now it’s the other way around.”

An inmate at Feltham young offender institute.
An inmate at Feltham young offender institute. Photograph: Matthew Fearn/PA

In his late 20s, believing that his life “would never be more than a bag of gear, a prison cell and a council estate”, Gethin “was a cornered animal and [his] soul was dying”. Miraculously, after receiving yet another prison sentence, this time of four years, he met people who, for the first time in his life, “treated [him] with respect and care”. Caring staff on the inside were followed by engagement with services, official and voluntary, after he was released from that sentence. Six long years later, Gethin had completed what he describes as his “whole rehabilitation journey”.

He was well on his way to the age of 40 by this stage – childhood, youth and young adulthood were mostly behind him. There is only one feature of Gethin’s life that sets him apart from the majority of other children arrested, criminalised, brutalised and institutionalised by our criminal justice system: he managed, eventually, to escape. He now runs a successful business, Unlocking Potential, which draws upon his own experiences to provide training, mentoring and commercial services, aimed at inspiring others and supporting projects to engage with offenders of all ages in ways that might actually make a difference.

Gethin is in no doubt that what he said to the judge all those years ago was the truth. The criminal justice system that judge represents – which operates on behalf of us all – is what created Gethin the child, Gethin the young offender, Gethin the addict, Gethin the adult criminal. It is the same system that created all the young men I met at young offender institutions.

Gethin believes that a legal and safe supply of drugs, access to counselling, addiction services and appropriate forms of therapy would have a huge impact on young people in the criminal justice system – particularly those who have passed through the care system and experienced trauma in their lives.

He spoke of a 14-year-old child “criminal”, recently “named and shamed” in the press for antisocial behaviour. The boy had become “feral” at the age of five after his mother died. His father had cancer. The boy was highly aggressive and had, unsurprisingly, entered the criminal justice system. “Where were we when he was five?” Gethin asked, rhetorically.

The only thing that mattered to Gethin was safety – both for the child, and for the rest of us. He had no doubt that it was possible to offer security for the damaged children crossing the radar of the police, and that those leaving care in particular needed to receive huge financial investment, just to provide the basis of a stable adult life. The shameful truth is that we spend almost nothing on the sorts of services needed to support young people through the most troubled of times – to pick them up when they fall, and to provide them with the basic ingredients to enter adulthood as fully functioning members of the community, rather than as pariahs, blighted for life by the label “criminal”.

We nevertheless pay hundreds of thousands of pounds to process many of these children through the criminal justice system, and to warehouse them for years – and even more if they end up graduating to adult prisons, as most of them do. Indeed, we happily condemn damaged children – at enormous expense – to hellholes like Feltham, where they are more likely to be assaulted or killed than to find an escape from the revolving doors of courts, prisons and addiction.

This is an edited extract from Justice on Trial: Radical Solutions for a System at Breaking Point by Chris Daw, published by Bloomsbury and available at guardianbookshop.co.uk

•Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, and sign up to the long read weekly email here

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest