Inspections boss Charlie Taylor warned that youth prisons were “storing up real problems for the future” by failing to rehabilitate or educate child convicts.
Youth detention centres have seen a 30 per cent increase in assaults in the past year, with 297 incidents per 100 children – up from 229 in 2020/21. Self-harm had also increased by 37 per cent in the past year, Mr Taylor’s review found.
A shortage of prison officers means children are being locked up for many hours a day to try to limit the disorder.
One child said it was “mental torture, just seeing the light of day for 30 minutes a day.” “That’s 3-5 hours a week,” they added.
At Werrington Young Offenders’ Institution, near Stoke-on-Trent, prison staff had to deal with children climbing parts of the estate and then refusing to come down. On a number of occasions, staff had to call for back-up from a specialist prison command team after rival groups of children started fighting each other.
Inspectors highlighted one incident of disorder that prompted staff to ask for the use of specialist-trained dogs and explosives that produce a flash of light and loud noise to control the unruly inmates.
They said children at Werrington, which holds 89 boys aged between 15 and 18, had described being “hypervigilant when out of their cell”. They were fearful of moving around the prison in case staff accidentally took them to the wrong area and they were confronted by other children with whom they had disagreements.
At the time of the inspection in August this year, there was a significant shortage of prison officers due to sick leave and injury, meaning there were just 58 out of a target of 115 staff available.
Although violence has increased across the youth offender estate, the number of children being detained in these institutions has fallen from 939 in 2015/16 to 435 in 2022/23.
The vast majority of the 435 children held are aged between 15 and 18, and male. Over half are from a minority ethnic background. Some 66 per cent had been in local authority care and 12 per cent had children of their own.
There has also been a rise in the number of children who have been sentenced for violence, up to 65 per cent from just 33 per cent in 2015/16.
Mr Taylor said child offenders often distrust staff and warned government ministers away from introducing pepper spray as a way to help officers control violent incidents.
He said: “Not even a third of children could name a single member of staff they believed would help them if they had a problem.”
“Our report shows how poor trust already is between staff and children, and our inspections continue to find an absence of the basic activities that should improve trust and behaviour which would be far more productive and serve public protection far better over time.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “The number of children in custody has fallen by 79 per cent since 2010 as a result of early intervention work and the wider use of robust community sentences.”
They said those children that remain “have often committed the most serious offences and have exceptionally complex needs”. They added that the MoJ were “recruiting a specialist youth justice workforce trained to work with extremely vulnerable children”.