HMIP Inspections of Cookham Wood

The prison was inspected in December 2018, the full reports can be read at the Ministry of Justice web site, just follow the links below. In their latest report the inspectors said:

HMYOI Cookham Wood, near Rochester, is a young offender institution holding up to 188 boys between the ages of 15 and 18. At the time of our inspection in December 2018, 165 young people were being held in mostly new accommodation that had been rebuilt in recent years. We last inspected the institution in late 2017 and seek to inspect facilities holding young people annually.

We found Cookham Wood to be a largely settled facility despite the challenges of holding a group of young people with complex needs, a significant minority of whom were facing quite considerable sentences for serious offences. Our overall assessment of outcomes, however, was that they remained insufficiently good in safety, purposeful activity and resettlement, but reasonably good in care. These were the same assessments we made in 2017, although we did identify improvement within the bands of our marking system. Disappointingly, we also found that the institution had achieved only half the recommendations we made in 2017.

Cookham Wood received young people from across southern England. Too many arrived late in the evening which did not help reception and risk assessment processes, although, in general, young people were received and inducted to a reasonable standard.

Safeguarding procedures were in place but referral arrangements to the local authority designated officer needed to be quicker and more consistently applied. Self-harm among young people remained low and those who needed support told us they felt well cared for. Access to regime provision for a small number who were isolating themselves, however, needed to be better.

 Behaviour management arrangements mostly sought to incentivise young people, but we did see some poor behaviour go unchallenged by staff, and some inconsistencies in the application of reward schemes which undermined their legitimacy. Some aspects of procedural security were cumbersome. It was undoubtedly the case that complex and dynamic keep-apart restrictions that sought to keep numerous individuals away from each other had a serious detrimental impact on the services provided to young people and arguably the culture of the institution.

To illustrate this point, some young people, because of keep-apart restrictions, spent almost as much time each day being escorted to and from activity as they did in the activity. While the reasons for this approach were clear in terms of protecting individuals, there needed, in our view, to be some new thinking about how to challenge this restrictive culture and the causes of it.

 In our survey of young people, about 10% told us they felt unsafe, which was much lower than at the last inspection. Work to resolve conflict and reduce violence was taking place, with several initiatives showing promise. Levels of violence, however, remained high, despite some encouraging reduction in recent months. About two-thirds of young people indicated to us that they had been subject to use of force but records suggested much was comparatively low level. Conditions in the old segregation unit remained poor and in our view its use should be discontinued. The Bridge landing also held young people who were being kept apart. Facilities and interventions on this unit were better, but young people held there were locked in their cells for too long.

Most young people told us they felt respected by staff and we saw evidence of care and compassion from staff despite many being relatively inexperienced. Most staff we met were growing in confidence, were knowledgeable, and spoke positively about those they cared for. Living conditions and cellular accommodation were mostly good, although we were concerned to see a number of cells extensively graffitied with unacceptable images of violence and racism. The nature and extent of this graffiti was such that we secured photographic evidence of it, and would normally have included this in our report. However, on this occasion we have not done so as there were also specific references to a convicted gang member and gang-related postcodes. These could clearly cause distress to victims of gang violence, whether innocent members of the public or young people serving sentences in Cookham Wood, and should have been erased as a matter of urgency.

Consultation arrangements with young people were reasonably good and there was evidence that the youth council had effected some positive change in the establishment. However, the promotion of equality had seen only small improvements. Health services were very good.

 The amount of time that young people spent unlocked was slightly better than at the last inspection but we still found a quarter of the population locked up during the working day. Enough education places were provided and the range on offer was good, but attendance was still poor and the quality of teaching and assessment needed improvement. Our colleagues in Ofsted judged the overall effectiveness of learning and skills provision at Cookham Wood as ‘requires improvement’.

The institution now had in place an up-to-date assessment of the resettlement needs of young people, but the assessment had yet to inform strategic direction. Departments in Cookham Wood were not well integrated in support of resettlement work and sentence plans did not always address issues of risk. Caseworkers met frequently with young people but records of these meetings were poor. Public protection work similarly required improvement. The institution’s support for children and family ties was better.

Overall, we believed Cookham Wood to be an institution that was progressing but not yet to the point where this could be recognised in our healthy prison assessments. The institution was nevertheless well led by a governor and team that seemed receptive to innovative ideas and were working hard to support a relatively inexperienced staff group to grow in confidence and competence. Priorities for the year ahead remained the reduction in levels of violence and ensuring young people were required to engage in purposeful activity consistently.

Peter Clarke CVO OBE QPM                                                     February 2019

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Return to Cookham Wood

To read the full reports follow the links below: