A school for criminals?

Rebecca Roberts argues that criminal justice should keep out of our schools.

Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s well oiled PR machine has been very active in recent weeks with plenty of media coverage of plans to toughen up prisons and remove legal aid for ‘criminals’. While all of this is concerning none of it is particularly new. What did catch my eye however was mention of plans to locate youth criminal justice services within schools – effectively opening prisons inside schools.

In an interview to the Times Educational Supplement (TES) magazine last week Grayling suggested that there could be scope to locate ‘youth prisons’ within the grounds of schools. He told the magazine that he is concerned that prisons are failing to offer education and skills that young people need to survive in the outside world – rather than stay on the straight and narrow they end up back in prison. In addressing this educational failure penal reformers have responded with alternatives. The first, outlined in the TES article is to not send young people to prison in the first place (aka the ‘Swedish’ approach where the age of criminal responsibility is set at 15 and children are diverted away from contact with the criminal justice system). The second, the ‘California’ approach, is to improve access to education. High schools are set up within prisons to offer young people a form of mainstream education.

Grayling’s proposal is a somewhat novel (and worrying) third way. Why take the teachers to the prison when you can simply put the prison in the school? I can see the common sense here; children in prisons would benefit from mainstream education opportunities. But this proposal sets off a number of alarm bells. The idea that prisons should have educative and rehabilitative intentions is not new but whatever the educational goals, the punitive dimensions have always been to the fore and relatively transparent. By encouraging mainstream schools to house punitive institutions we risk blurring the lines between education and punishment. Arguably this blurring has already started – the use of CCTV cameras in schools, security guards and regular reliance on police to help manage behaviour is already widespread. Placing a prison within the walls of a school is perhaps just a natural next step.

Such a move would increase the presence and threat of punishment to young people who step out of line – and in particular children from certain communities already the focus of much criminal justice interest. The threat of the penal institution would loom even larger and offer a seamless transition from school, to pupil referral unit to prison. My guess is that poverty stricken areas and inner cities would be deemed most suitable for these ‘prison in a school’ institutions. I’m also left wondering who would run these institutions – Ministry of Justice? Department for Education? Or perhaps G4S or Securicor might want to set up a (not so) ‘free’ school? My heart sinks at the thought of the education system becoming closely aligned to criminal justice.

All children deserve an education – including children in prison. We should be looking at ways of keeping young people out of prisons and treating them as children first. Schools should be places of learning, safety and growth – not punishment, security and control.

Rebecca Roberts is a member of the Reclaim Justice Network steering group and the Senior Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

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