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The contribution of youth work in a custodial environment

21st August 2017
by Lisa Hogg, Service Manager, Barnardo's Scotland

HMPYOI Polmont is Scotland’s national custodial provision for young people in custody aged 16-21 years. Barnardo’s have been the main service provider of youth work within the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) since 2010 with its main aim to:

Support the development of young men and women aged 16-21 who are in custody - to enhance their social skills and personal development and support their reintegration back into the community upon release. (Barnardo’s, 2013)

Young people in custody are some of the most disadvantaged in Scotland. They have faced multiple challenges in their short lives. Research indicates the pre-existing vulnerabilities these young people face:

- 90% have experienced the death of a family member, with 77% of these being traumatic bereavements (including murder and suicide)

- 42% have been suspended from school more than four times

- 36% have been removed from their family of origin

- 42% have had a parent in prison

- 40% had their first drink before the age of 12

This list could go on and on. These challenges will continue to have a major impact on the young people’s lives, on their offending behaviour and on our communities unless we begin to work with the root causes of their offending behaviour. 

In Unlocking Potential – Transforming Lives (2013), SPS set out a new vision that prioritised an asset-based approach to address risk and needs. This approach builds on individual’s strengths and potential for better rehabilitation outcomes – that meant developing an approach across HMPYOI Polmont making every contact an opportunity to learn.

In 2014 SPS published Vision for Young People in Custody, putting emphasis on creating a learning environment to enable young people in custody to “prepare for a positive future”. As a result of this shift in Scottish youth justice policy, youth work has been embedded within the custodial environment and is currently offered to all young people within HMPYOI Polmont.

But what role does youth work have in supporting these young people in learning?

Barnardo’s deliver a varied youth work curriculum to young people in custody, giving them the opportunity to access a wide range of informal learning opportunities to support their personal and social development. The service compliments existing formal learning provision and offers an alternative approach to their learning journey.

Although delivered within a unique environment, the values and principles of youth work practice are very much present and integral to our service delivery. Youth work is characterised by three essential features:

Young people choose to participate.
The work must build from where the young people are.
Recognising young people and the worker are partners in the learning process.

By involving young people in the design, development and delivery of services, and ensuring young people feel listened to, valued and respected, this leads to an increase in confidence and self-esteem enabling them to work through challenges they are facing. However, this is not an easy task when working with this challenging group of young people.

Over the past year, we have delivered more than 101 qualifications and worked with more than 200 young people each month. Our areas of work include the Duke of Edinburgh Award, peer mentoring programme, performing arts, parenting, Youth Bank, issue and project-based work, and 1-2-1 work.

Is youth work best placed to support this group of young people with very complex and challenging needs? My response would be yes. Our experience within HMPYOI Polmont shows the youth work approach has high engagement rates in learning.  Fundamental to this is the ability to build effective and trusting relationships with young people who find it difficult to create attachments, particularly with adults.  

SPS has recognised the valuable contribution that youth work can bring to supporting their vision. In recent years, youth work has also been recognised as an effective method in engaging young people who offend both inside and outside of a custodial setting. However, despite being recognised as a key stakeholder within Youth Justice, youth work still has difficulty being recognised as contributing to positive outcomes for these young people.

I think other areas such as Health, Employability and particularly Education should recognise how youth work can support their sector in the delivery of their services with this very challenging, complex and highly vulnerable group of young people.

The delivery of youth work within the prison has shown how effective the approach is in engaging young people in learning. The question now is not whether youth work can do this, but rather within this current financial climate does youth work have the capacity to target this group of young people and are other services willing to recognise the value of the youth work approach?

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