Diagrama responds to damning annual prison inspection report

20 Jul 2017
A Diagrama educator teaches a small group of boys

On Tuesday, Peter Clarke, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons, published his annual report for 2016-17. In it, he says ‘by February this year we had reached the conclusion that there was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people’.

His annual report talks of a system of custody in urgent need of change - caught in a cycle of violence, with rates of assaults and self-harm rising and children unable to access education, training and programmes to help them re-engage with society. Over 25 years ago, Spain set out on just such a journey of change.

Diagrama has been at the heart of this right from the beginning, over time developing a model of care that supports children in custody and reintegrates them into their families and communities. Diagrama now runs around 70% of the children’s custodial centres in Spain.

The centres, of around 50-80 young people, are mostly staffed by professionally trained educators responsible for the day-to-day care and support for all children and young people. All children are engaged in a full programme of education and enrichment activities, delivered by qualified teachers and educators working together. They also take part in specific programmes to address offending behaviour and address other needs, overseen and delivered by psychologists and other specialists.

A ‘technical team’ formed of on-site professionals including a psychologist, social worker, social educator, teacher, lawyer and a doctor leads case management for each young person. The team is led by the centre’s Deputy Director, who is the nominated case manager with a personal interest in every child. The technical team is key to consistently applying the model of care to every individual child and throughout the whole centre.

A crucial part of the model is that each child is given responsibility for their own progression while in the centre. In this they are supported by the technical team, who they meet with regularly so that they can discuss progress and any issues together, and day-to-day by educators and other staff. Families are engaged in this process as far as possible too. Levels of violence and restraints are very low (an average of 5 per year per centre) and the staff team is supported by a small number of security staff.

While they’re available to manage any incidents, should these happen, the main role of the security staff is to keep the centre secure, for example stopping prohibited items getting in so that that children and staff can focus on rehabilitation.

In Spain, children’s criminal records are wiped when they become 18. However, a study in 2015 which had tracked 209 children released from one of Diagrama’s centres in the Murcia region for 4-5 years found that only 28% received a subsequent conviction. Youth Justice statistics for 2015/16 say that 68.7% of children released from custody in England and Wales reoffend within one year.

More important than all of that, though, is that Diagrama’s model is based on a genuine affection, respect and care by every single member of staff for the children and young people being parented by in our centres. They call it ‘love’ in Spain: sometimes we’re more reserved in our language here in the UK, but we don’t feel it any less for that. The model lets children become children again. It lets them learn clear boundaries from adults who act as role models, and helps them understand that hard work, effort and co-operation is rewarded by freedoms, including temporary release for school and work opportunities and responsibility for themselves. It lets them try, sometimes fail, and ultimately succeed in a setting that will support them, champion them and care about them. (You can find out more about our centres in Spain in this short BBC report.)

What have we learned from that experience? Diagrama has over 25 years’ experience running custodial settings in Spain and France and employs more than 3,500 members of staff, the majority of whom work with over 2,800 children in custody every year. We came to the UK in 2008. Since then we’ve talked to government and partners at all levels to share our experience and help them understand how the challenges to changing the system in England and Wales can be overcome – through our work in the youth justice field in 21 (yes, 21) countries we’ve seen that they can be overcome.

In the last 9 years we’ve answered just about every question you could think of about whether our model would work in the UK.

No, our centres are not holiday camps, and neither are they boot camps.

Yes, we set clear boundaries for children and no, that’s not incompatible with genuine trust and affection and that’s not a ‘cultural difference’ between Spain and the UK: would you really expect your own children to grow up without love?

Yes, you can value, recruit and train qualified staff who want to work with children here in the UK – again, why would you think that professionals here are different to those in every other country in that regard? We have had discussions with a university to develop the social educator degree.

No, running our model doesn’t cost the earth and you can deliver centres at the same or lower cost than Secure Training Centres - and as a not for profit organisation we put all the funds back into the service for children.

Yes, there are differences between the Spanish justice system’s approach to children and ours in the England and Wales, some of which we would love to see here.

The perception of the purpose in custody has shifted in Spain which has become more receptive to the importance of rehabilitation and education, and recognises the need for a highly skilled workforce. Only public sector or not-for profit providers are allowed and there has been a move away from a risk-averse culture to one that supports innovation, quality and outcomes.

Responsibility for children in custody has been regionalised, which has allowed children to be placed close to home, making family involvement easier. There is a united, multi-disciplinary approach, with the judiciary, professionals from government departments including the health service and education working alongside providers, supported by a more flexible system of sentencing and case management.

However, our staff's experience of working in custodial settings in the UK also shows us that our model can be implemented now, without any legislative change. Crucially, we know from personal experience that it takes phenomenal amounts of hard work and patience to bring in a new model of custody - in particular at the beginning, working with children who often know as much about prisons as of the staff who work with them.

Changing their expectations is just as challenging as changing those of staff and partners. It takes careful planning and constant commitment and leadership from all staff and managers. As an organisation Diagrama has shown it has both the capability and commitment to do this and we would work our hearts out to demonstrate this.

Peter Clarke’s report underscores the urgency of changing the custodial system in England and Wales and the need to use the opportunities set out in the Government’s response to Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system to do this. Any change can be seen as a risk, but we owe it to children in custody now and in the future to take those first steps.

It’s taken 25 years for the system in Spain to develop as far it has, building trust between centres and their communities so that, rather than replicating children’s chaotic lives in custody, our centres become the foundation for their positive futures and their reintegration to society. It’s time to start here in the UK.