Some of you may have seen a Panorama programme which was broadcast on 11 January. The programme was based on an undercover investigation of the Medway Secure Training Centre (STC) in Kent. The title of the programme was Teenage Prison Abuse Exposed and made allegations of the “utmost seriousness”, to quote the Secretary of State for Justice.
One of my new roles as a Shadow Minister for Justice is to follow closely youth justice issues. I am particularly pleased to have this role because of my youth work background and because I believe it is vital that young people who are placed in custody do not become the hardened criminals of tomorrow. This is not to suggest that I am soft on youth crime - quite the opposite - but I realise that it is both morally wrong and entirely counterproductive to fail to give young people in our criminal justice system proper support and guidance.
Unfortunately, what appears to have happened at Medway STC is that young people were appallingly treated and abused. Since this programme has been broadcast five staff members at Medway have been dismissed and three more suspended, including one person employed by the healthcare provider.
The Government and the Youth Justice Board have introduced a number of measures and have launched detailed inspections, with a view to making an assessment of safety and safeguarding at the centre.
But this should not be the end of the matter. I believe that fundamental lessons have to be learnt. It is wrong that much of our youth justice system, including Secure Training Centres, are desperately short of funds. It is also extremely questionable if private organisations like G4S are appropriate to run young offenders’ institutions like Medway. Indeed, I would go further and question whether G4S should have any contracts within the criminal justice system.
Over recent years there have been a number of reports which have looked at safety in young offenders’ institutions. All of them paint a pretty bleak picture.
These reports and the Panorama programme on Medway show why safety in youth custody should be a priority and taken much more seriously by the Government.