In March 2018, Clinks Policy Officer Oonagh Ryder visited a youth custody institution in Ciudad Real, Spain, run by the voluntary organisation Diagrama. This blog discusses what she saw on this visit and asks whether Diagrama’s model could work in England and Wales.
As I am welcomed at Ciudad Real train station by two members of Diagrama staff, I can tell that today will be quite different to my experience of visiting prisons in England and Wales. Driving from the station to Diagrama’s La Canada re-education centre, Vicente and José are brimming with enthusiasm about having a visitor – it is already a far cry from navigating the security process to enter an English young offender institution. On entering the centre, besides the bars on the windows, it looks and feels like the entrance to a small school and I am welcomed by more staff and a table full of tea and biscuits.
There are several important distinctions between the Spanish youth justice system and that of England and Wales. The age of criminal responsibility in Spain is 14; children below this age cannot be dealt with by the criminal justice system and fall under the jurisdiction of social services if they commit an offence. Between the age of 14 and 16, the maximum sentence a child can receive is four years, regardless of the crime. Between 16 and 18, this rises to eight years. In England and Wales, the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old, children can receive life sentences and it is estimated that over 400 people are serving sentences of over 14 years, received under the age of 18.
While the rights of children and a child-specific approach in the youth justice system are enshrined in Spain’s national law, regions have a level of autonomy in delivering sentences. Regional authorities are responsible for the welfare and development of children in the region, inside and outside of custody. For this reason, along with the recognition in law of the importance of family ties, children are rarely placed outside their home region.
“If you just punish me and don’t give me an education or opportunities, then the next crime I commit will be worse.”
We start the visit by dropping into a few of the morning classes in session. The classrooms feel much like any other secondary classroom, although considerably calmer than I remember my school experience being. The teenagers I meet in each class are confident, polite and very gracious about my terrible Spanish. Speaking to one boy who is particularly curious about how the English system works, I explain the difficulties children in English prisons can encounter accessing education and the long periods many spend locked in their cells. He looks confused and asks why this is allowed to continue, explaining, “If you just punish me and don’t give me an education or any opportunities, then the next crime I commit will be worse.”
With just over 70 children, the centre is focused on education and activity. Children spend eight hours per day in the classroom or doing other activities such as sport, horticulture, woodwork, arts and caring for animals. Classrooms typically have a high ratio of staff to children and all staff must have at least one degree in an area relevant to children and education. Each child has a tutor that they speak with daily and will also engage with a large number of other professionals including educators, social workers, psychologists and doctors.
Responsibility and affection: two sides of the same coin
Children at the centre are encouraged to take responsibility for their behaviour and progression. Speaking to the staff at the centre, however, it quickly becomes clear that the word ‘responsibility’ does not have the same connotations for them as it does in England and Wales. Javier, the Regional Director for Diagrama, tells me, “We cannot separate responsibility from affection.” He explains that placing trust in a child and showing they are liked helps them to see themselves differently. This approach creates safety by instilling in the children a sense of themselves as respected, responsible and non-violent.
This philosophy also means that children are involved in decisions about their lives in order to be able to take responsibility for their progression. This is in contrast to what young people in contact with the criminal justice system told Clinks during our consultation events on the Taylor Review of youth justice; they said they experienced a sense of extreme disempowerment as a result of feeling like they’re not listened to. As some academic studies have found, it seems that our focus on risk, vulnerability and protection can also send a message to children that they are dangerous, incapable and unworthy of being consulted on their own lives.
Back to the community
The centre has a gradual approach to resettlement. Children acquire greater levels of freedom, including time in the community, as they progress through their sentence and meet their goals. Staff at the centre work with the child’s social worker to ensure everything is in place, such as housing and education. The advantages of the devolved youth justice system can be most clearly seen at this point. The regional government’s responsibility for both custody and resettlement is conducive to forward planning, avoiding the complications often experienced in England and Wales with finding accommodation, school places and other support for children leaving prison.
Would it work here?
In many ways, the Spanish context is very different to England. The increased autonomy of regional governments and devolved budgets encourage more joined-up work; services for children cannot be run for profit, meaning that commissioning processes must be made accessible for non-profit organisations; and restrictions on the length of sentences for children encourage a more future-focused approach.
Diagrama makes no secret of the fact that improving custody tends to lead to more children being imprisoned. But the organisation argues that, with high quality services, this needn’t be a negative result. Others have called for the end of child imprisonment altogether and more investment in community provision outside of the criminal justice system.
Regardless of this debate, the key features of Diagrama’s model echo much of the recommendations made by Clinks in our submission to the Taylor Review after extensive consultation with the voluntary sector in England and Wales. This suggests that the organisation and their contribution to a transformation in Spanish youth custody since the early 1990s could offer some valuable lessons for the Ministry of Justice and Clinks’ membership.