Custody is quite simply a horrible place for young people. I know because I worked in a Secure Training Centre for a number of years as a social work manager. It’s not that custodial settings set out to inflict hardship or suffering on its detainees. Quite the opposite in fact, with many attempts being made to assist young people with their problems. However, custody often fails because whilst the enclosed environment is strictly managed, it can often become chaotic and will consist of young people who invariably display anger, hostility and resentment for being imprisoned.
Did you know that an estimated 90% of young detainees have a conduct disorder which is a personality trait that renders them hostile to rules? – or that over a half of young people in any custodial setting will suffer from a serious mental health issue? These issues range from ADHD, aspergers syndrome, attachment disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety as well as serious self-harm issues. Besides all this over 50% of detainees will have had a drug addiction which would have sometimes resulted in hallucinations possibly leading to flashbacks whilst in custody.
It is not surprising from a professional viewpoint that young people have such serious mental health problems when taking into account the level of suffering that they have had to endure in their short lives. A large majority will come from broken and unsupportive families and will have experienced neglect, abuse, violence and rejection almost on a daily basis. These young people will not have been able to develop coping skills to withstand the brutality that has been inflicted upon them. Therefore, some will have turned their feelings inwardly and fallen into depression; others will use self-harming as a method of releasing their mental anguish, whilst more will have turned to drugs for comfort.
I am currently working with Jamie (not his real name). He is a young boy (15) who has recently come out of custody. He was sentenced to a six month Detention and Training Order for assault and robbery, the first three months of which were spent in a Secure Training Centre. He is now released and serving the remaining three months under my supervision in the community. I see him twice weekly as part of his DTO licence.
Overall, Jamie is quite a well adjusted young man, academically gifted, plays football, doesn’t drink or take drugs but has witnessed regular domestic violence which results in him having occasional unprovoked tantrums. Anyhow, I helped Jamie to pen some of his feelings of being in custody which consisted of episodes of anxiety and stress.
When I was in the dock I was scared and worried because I got a hint of what was happening and when the judge said ‘’six month DTO’’, I felt like going mad. When I was sent down I thought ‘What have I got myself into’. I was handcuffed and put in a van. I felt like crying because I didn’t know what to expect or where I was going or what it was going to be like. I told myself to be calm.
During my time in custody I felt angry because I couldn’t be in control of anything. You start being quiet because you are not being yourself as you are not in a normal environment. You start remembering stuff you forgot about – deep stuff. What you could have changed or stopped. A lot of stuff preying on your mind. I felt I had changed so much during the first month that I felt like going up to staff and saying to them ’If you let me out now – I won’t offend again, I have changed’. But I had to be careful of what I said to staff and how I behaved. I didn’t want to appear too quiet because I thought they would put me on a SASH (Suicide and Self Harm Watch). There was another boy on my unit who was on a SASH. It’s not that I was feeling like harming myself. When you are banged up inside you are faced with constant stressful situations. The staff are stressed, other young people are stressed and then you have to cope yourself. The rules stresses everyone out. You aren’t allowed to look out of the windows in your room. Your bedroom door is locked and you hear the constant noise of keys and have the feeling you can’t get out. My mum couldn’t visit me on my birthday. This made me feel awful.
But you get used of the environment inside seeing the same people every day. You know what is happening and you get used to the schedule. But then when you get out you suddenly have a much bigger schedule. When inside you know what your limits are with people but getting out is a different story. It took me ages to get back to normal life. The day I got out I had to do a bus journey from home to the YOT office. When I got on the bus I got a sickly feeling in my stomach as there were loads of people around me and I didn’t expect this. I had been so excited about getting out but the excitement was replaced with anxiety.
There were three points in Jamie’s story which stood out for me. Note how he said he became reflective and spent a lot of time remembering things he had previously forgotten about. ‘Deep stuff…… what you could have changed or stopped….. a lot of stuff preying on your mind’. This made me think about the anguish of young people in custody who have experienced physical and sexual abuse. What must they be thinking at night during their lone moments when they lie there listening to the background noise of keys rattling.
Another point in Jamie’s account leads me to consider counter-transference. Jamie talks about the stressed environment of custody when he says ’You are faced with constant stressful situations. The staff are stressed, other young people are stressed and then you have to cope yourself. The rules stresses everyone out’. Counter-transference in laymans’ terms is when you are surrounded by someone who for example is feeling stressed or unable to cope – and you begin to feel almost exactly how they are feeling. In other words a young person may transfer their negative feelings onto another young person or staff member – or visa versa. Let us therefore muster up a picture of custody. An environment that consists of young people with serious mental health problems including suicidal ideation – others who are feeling anxious or struggling to cope with rules– mixed in with other young people who like to bully and antagonise – alongside staff who are overworked, tired and stressed. The result will undoubtedly entail individual transference of feelings getting passed on to each other, thus creating an emotionally charged atmosphere, which will test even the most resilient teenager imaginable.
The final point I would like to refer to is institutionalisation. Jamie was only in custody for three months but already he had settled into a routine that he found hard to break free from once released back into the community. ‘You know what is happening and you get used to the schedule….but then when you get out you suddenly have a much bigger schedule. It took me ages to get back to normal life. Routines for young people are in one respect excellent because they teach discipline which young people in custody need to get used to. But in Jamie’s case nobody had explained to him how difficult he would find leaving a confined and restricted environment – and the need to readapt to daily life again upon release. Can you imagine how terrifying it would for a young person getting released from custody, after been imprisoned for a year or longer, and then having to go on a bus journey by themselves, like Jamie described in his story. This is definitely an area that requires professionals to put much more thought into. I strongly suggest that Detention Centres include in their ‘Leavers’ programme sessions which enable young people to consider how captivity will have affected their lives and to somehow prepare them for re-integration back into the community. Devising these programmes could be a joint venture with the custodial setting and the Youth Offending Team with a plan of action being devised at the final review meeting prior to release.
Jamie is now back in full time education. I am currently working with him on his anger management issues, exploring skills he will be able to use to avoid losing his temper that will hopefully prevent him from re-offending. The youth offending team use a specific programme entitled Pathways – which contain exercises that teach young people the skills involved in developing social skills that are essential for good interpersonal interactions with others. Jamie’s problem solving techniques have much improved as a result of these sessions. He recently commented that the exercises, which cover a wide range of social dilemmas involving peers ‘have made me look at problems in a different way that I never thought about before’.
I cannot answer how much Jamie has been affected by his time in custody but I suspect that he will, like so many other young people, retain unpleasant memories of this experience for the rest of his life.
Published by the National Children’s Bureau magazine