Page last updated at 07:27 GMT, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 08:27 UK

Hydebank fails its young offenders

Vincent Kearney
By Vincent Kearney
BBC NI home affairs correspondent

Report criticises Hydebank
The report was critical of the prison regime

As inspections go, they don't come much worse than this.

Inspectors visited Hydebank for five days in November last year. It was an announced visit, so the prison authorities knew they were coming, and they clearly didn't like what they found.

Their report says the centre was failing to perform effectively against any of the four tests they use to assess conditions and performance, and they make 182 recommendations for improvements.

As if that wasn't bad enough, this was the second visit by inspectors in two and a half years, so clearly many of the recommendations made then have yet to be implemented.

Indeed Kit Chivers, the criminal justice inspector for Northern Ireland, says that in many ways the situation has gone backwards during that time.

Opened in 1979, Hydebank Wood in south Belfast accommodates around 200 male young offenders aged from 16 to 21 in four separate residential units. It shares a site with Northern Ireland's women's prison.

The report states that "there can be few custodial settings with so many competing risks and vulnerabilities in one small site."

Kit Chivers is a softly spoken man who chooses his words carefully, so the words he has chosen on this occasion have alarm bells ringing within the prison service.

'Brusque and intimidating'

The report paints a grim picture of life at Hydebank. It says inmates, including juveniles, are routinely strip-searched, unnecessarily handcuffed, and regularly spend up to 20 hours a day in their cells.

The reception facility for young people arriving at the centre is described as efficient, but procedures are labelled "brusque and intimidating", and inappropriate for juveniles, who were strip-searched on arrival.

Inspectors say there was no policy for managing children and no adequate child protection policy.

Few of the staff involved in strip-searching had been properly trained and the report says there was no evidence that Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Checks had been carried out on staff working with children.

While the inspectors said they were pleased to find relatively low levels of self harm among the inmates, they were concerned that incidents of bullying were not being robustly challenged.

They found a number of incidents of apparent bullying which had never been fully investigated, that many inmates said they felt unsafe, but staff had not been trained how to address bullying behaviour.

The disciplinary system is also criticised. The report says that while disciplinary procedures were carried out appropriately, punishments were harsh, particularly for children.

It notes that agreed guidance on punishment levels was often not followed and unofficial punishments were used.

Inspectors found that some children were locked in their cells on a basic regime for long periods, basically confined to their cell.

They quote the example of one inmate, someone aged 16 or 17, who was held this way for six weeks. During that time he was denied access to a phone for 28 days, and also denied a visit with his mother because of a minor altercation with staff.

The report says the prisoner was very distressed as he had not been able to communicate with his mother even by letter because he could not read or write.

Prison guard
Some inmates spend up to 20 hours a day locked in their cell

They were also concerned about the amount of time other young offenders spent in their cells.

The policy at the centre states that young people can be unlocked for a maximum of just 10 hours a day, but the inspectors said very few young people were actually unlocked for this amount of time.

The report says the reality was that many could spend up to 20 hours a day locked in their cell.

In a survey conducted as part of the inspection, only 8% of inmates said they spent 10 hours or more out of their cell, while 30% said they spent less than four hours a day unlocked.

And there's more, much more. The inspectors say there was a lack of "purposeful activity", with no strategic approach to delivering education and training.

Relationships between staff and young people are described as remote. In fact, the inspectors say they appeared to have deteriorated since their last visit in 2005.

The quality of the food was poor. The report says "lots of food was never eaten and many young men used the well-regarded tuck shop to supplement their poor diet."

The government and the prison service have expressed concern about the findings, but insist that significant improvements have been made since the visit in November.

But that visit was the second in two and a half years and the inspectors say they were disappointed by the level of progress since then.

They can revisit Hydebank again at any stage during the next three years to check progress. Kit Chivers says they are so concerned about conditions at the centre that it can expect another visit in much less than three years.

The next time they won't call before coming, they'll arrive unannounced. The prison service has been well warned.

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