Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Secure Unit

The Bass Rock. Secure Unit From An Earlier Time.

Hullo ma wee blog,

{Reflections on attending a Children's Panel hearing as part of a legal tribunal for a child held in secure accommodation for the purpose of care, treatment or protection}

As I walk across the car park to the main entrance I'm struck by the nondescript architecture of modern incarceration: single story, brick and glass all give the building the air of a community sports hall or office block on an industrial estate. There's an automated barrier watched by cameras on a pole across the unmarked road at the entrance to the car park. Beyond that small division the town can be clearly seen and heard going about it's business. There are no high walls, no fences and no perimeter lights. No guards are patrolling the grounds. Its extremely low key and matter of fact.

The huge external glass door opens smoothly and my two colleagues and I step into a glazed hallway. The doors in front of us do not open when pulled and it takes a moment of pushing and pulling and futile looks towards the reception staff before the door opens and we realise that its opening is dependant on the closing of the external door. We have been contained. This will be the constant reality of the next five or six hours. We are contained in simply the first of many layers we will come across. We move through a foyer with its subdued brickwork and soft furnishings telling a subtle combined message of strength, solidity and calming normality and on to the reception desk and its staff enclosed behind plate glass. It's clear that we are inside but also that we're not yet admitted. Our identities are efficiently verified then checked against expected visitors and we are given a locker key in return for a car key and directed to the locker with instructions to leave anything not required for our visit under lock and key. We are particularly advised not to take keys, phones, wallets or cash beyond this point. As we do this a manager is called to take us to the meeting room where the hearing will take place.

The manager is tall and efficient. He talks in the clipped tones of the professional while running through a health and safety brief as he leads us through to our meeting room, swiping a key fob on a locked door as we pass from the foyer into a corridor of pine and calming pastel. Doors it seems are everywhere, most are solid although some have small rectangular windows at head height. Some of them have small plaques which name the activity that takes place within; kitchen, laundry, visitor room 1. During the walk he tells us that we are not allowed to be unescorted at any time, the hearing room has an auto lock, so once we are in our allocated room we are again restricted unless there is a member of staff with us. Trips to the toilet facilities will have to be requested and escorted. He advises that these precautions are not only for personal security but for the safety of inmates, ensuring that no illicit items are left accidentally or deliberately. He points to a room. It has a window in the door. 'That's the laundry room for the boys - we only have boys here - but you'll notice that there are also vending machines in there. This is because we don't allow visitors to bring items such as drinks or confectionery as gifts as we found that a large number of them were laced with drugs by 'helpful' visitors. This way we control all access to these items while people are staying here. Even vending machines which were accessible to visitors were found to have items secreted in them for later pick up by inmates. Vending machines are only accessible under scrutiny as many boys are adept at breaking into them for cash and product if left unattended'

We are shown into the meeting room which is well decorated and appointed in clean calm colours. There is a large round window in one wall which gives a view out across the car park and the winter sun slowly sinking into the pine trees at the end of the car park. The window has no means of opening. Like the rest of the place so far the room has a functional and professional feel. After a few moments of chat about his role as admissions and assessment manager he leaves us to hold our private pre-hearing discussion where we discuss the case and the information in the reports provided. We check common understanding of the issues to be discussed, the arguments and explanations to come and agree a structure for the hearing: one of us will ask about the offences and seek out any opinion from the boy, try to understand how he views these things now compared to at the time, one of us about the impact of incarceration and what level of compliance there has been, what difficulties have arisen. One of us will lead the discussion about rehabilitation, about education and the safety of considering release both from the boys own perspective and the safety of the wider public. We are also waiting for the professionals involved; social workers, solicitors, open unit staff, school,etc and for any parent participating to arrive for the appointed time. As we're all experienced members of the Children's Hearing System we are soon ready and have some time on our hands until the appointed time. The lack of freedom is soon to the fore in our minds as two out of three have to ask to be escorted to the toilets and one to be allowed to go back to the car for missing glasses. These small things you don't normally have to wait for, or to ask permission to do and it's a small reminder that such freedoms are taken for granted under normal conditions.  That the smallest of freedoms should be under the control of others highlights how pressurised an environment this must be to be held here.  There is no phone in the room, no way of contacting the reception desk to ask for assistance and no way to contact the outside world. We like anyone else have to wait for the rhythm of the establishment to bring us a face at the observation panel before we can ask for what is needed. The admission manager returns to advise on who is here to attend and that there will be two additional members of staff attending as the young man who's hearing it is has indicated that he will kick off if an unsuitable decision is reached. The young man has a history of violence and assault beyond expectation for his years but the manipulative element of such a comment is also plain to all. A child's attempt to control the situation the way he knows best perhaps.

After our discussion we are ready to start the hearing at the appointed time. The attendees involved are led in by a member of staff; a social worker; a representative of the open unit where the boy had been living and hopes to return to; an advocacy worker, a senior member of the secure unit; The Reporter, the official who has called the hearing and will record our decision. Finally the boy himself comes in with three members of the unit staff and he sits with one either side of him as the other leaves the room. He is small and looks younger than his fifteen years. He is neatly presented and sits confidently among the others in the room. It's an environment he is familiar with over many years of involvement by social services and Children's Hearings. There are introductions done by all and the purpose of the hearing - to consider the renewal of a place of safety warrant - is advised. { a warrant legally expires after twenty two days and the conditions which led to its imposition have to be reviewed and reconsidered before considering renewal. Very specific conditions must exist to keep a child under secure conditions} No solicitor has come to represent the child although the previous hearing has appointed one, as we always do when a child is placed in secure accommodation. No parent has come. The Reporter advises that both the solicitor and his mother - there is no known father - have been advised of the hearing, have been sent copies of all the relevant paperwork and have not been in contact to advise any reason for non attendance. We ask her to adjourn the meeting and contact the solicitor - who has a legal obligation to attend - to confirm arrival. We can't compel the attendance of a parent at a hearing as the decisions are only legally binding on the child, so contact with the parent will be tried by the social worker to find out if she is en route. Everyone leaves.

After a short while The Reporter returns to advise us that the boys solicitors have made a mistake and not arranged attendance. Although we can decide to continue this denies the child the right to representation so we adjourn and advise The Reporter to get a solicitor here as quickly as possible. As the warrant is expiring and the reasons for the warrant are serious we cannot afford to cancel the hearing. Getting a solicitor on site will take two hours so we adjourn to wait for attendance. The social worker advises he hasn't been able to track down the boys mother but believes she may also be en route.

 Coffee and a sandwich are thankfully provided for us, isolated as we are on our own while we wait and after about half an hour the manager who first showed us to the meeting room returns with an offer of a tour of the facility. Rather than be cooped up for another hour and a half we pack away our confidential papers, place them into a locker and gratefully start the tour. As we pass through sequences of doors that partition corridors and rooms he explains that these are for containment in emergencies and to allow rival groups/ gang members to be segregated from each other during periods of transition during the day when education classes change for instance. We are shown the education center where classes of no more than four pupils at a time are taught by one tutor. At one point we are shepherded into a room for several minutes while groups are moved from one area to another. A face appears at the observation panel - one of the boys - and we're subjected to careful, vaguely hostile and unemotional scrutiny. We visit the gym, the pool area, common rooms, the accommodation units and the kitchens all without contact with anyone other than staff. It's a strangely sterile environment this seemingly uninhabited place where 30 staff are needed to look after up to twenty five boys.There is virtually no noise. No one has a radio playing. The only time we have heard anything other than the voice of our guide was a chat between some of the boys as they moved from one classroom to another while we were held seperate. That had been startling simply by its banality in such surroundings.

 The unit can accommodate more but one of the accommodation blocks has been shut down due to government cuts in funding. All through the tour our guide has explained how carefully the staff have to plan to ensure that the boys are kept safe while here, the different levels of seclusion or inclusion, the challenges of breaking down the gang mentality and the process used to allow the boys to build trust and win concessions and inclusions into group activities. All of the boys here are deeply troubled due to their poor upbringing and several have little effective means of managing their behaviour or interaction with their fellow inmates. Some have been here for several years. Argument, violence and anger outbursts are everyday occurrences from boys frustrated by control and inability to cope with these situations. The unit is a pentagon built around a center courtyard that has a soft surface five a side football field. Like all the other areas we have seen it's well designed and maintained and has discrete observation cameras.

After the tour we return to the meeting room and are left to discuss our impressions of the facility and soon after we're advised that a solicitor has arrived from Edinburgh so the hearing can begin. We hear of new and serious charges being brought against the youngster who has now been here almost three weeks. These are from his last few chaotic days before he was placed here for his own safety and to protect others from his actions.  Since his move here he has been calm and has complied with all the rules of the place, he's caused no problems and been involved in no arguments with his peers. He and his solicitor argue that this shows he has self control and that secure criteria no longer exist as he is no longer outwith control. The boy states he understands that he is on the brink of the adult criminal system because of his age and is willing to take that chance. He feels it's his choice to make. The professionals say he is compliant only as a means of securing his release and that in their opinion chaos will resume almost at once. The unit who had been accommodating him advise they are not yet willing to have him back but are committed to him long term.

For us the arguments are interesting but moot. The new offence grounds are denied by the boy so we have two choices to make on them - agree and dismiss them or send them for proof - and as we judge they are too serious to be dismissed simply because he denies them we decide to send them to a Sheriff who will make a legal decision to find them proven or not. As a result we also don't hesitate to renew the warrant for another 22 days while this happens. The time will also give the boy and the professionals around him time to try and get a proper plan in place as to how he is going to be managed and what he has to do to show capable of being allowed back to the freedom of the open unit. We ask for at least one of the panel to be part of the next hearing {normally a different panel of three would hear the case} as the case is so complex and we believe that continuity would be in the best interests of the boy.

Instead of the threatened outburst the boy is quiet and subdued and is taken to a room nearby for some quiet time to reflect before being allowed back into the rest of the unit. Some minutes later as I leave I pass his face looking out from the observation panel of the quiet room. His eyes are red and his face is tear stained and anguished. He looks far younger than his fifteen years and he looks like he needs a hug from a mother who never even came to the hearing.

When the case returns to a hearing three weeks later I again sit on the panel where after a long discussion and review of progress made we return the boy to the secure unit - this time with a full decision and not an interim measure of a place of safety warrant - for 3 months. In 3 months he will be sixteen and of age where he would normally be dealt with in the adult system. If he continues to behave in the way he has been he will go to prison. I write into the decision of the panel that it is our opinion he should be maintained in the Children's Hearing system until he is eighteen {as we can do in certain circumstances} to allow him to complete the work he needs to do with the professionals supporting him to try and turn his life around. We don't feel he is a lost cause and fear that if he is subjected to the adult system his life will be ruined.

His mother again did not attend.

See you later.


Nicky said...

Alistair, this is fascinating stuff! Love the photo of the Bass too!

Alistair said...

Glad you enjoyed it Nicky. A different experience for sure to be in one of those places even for a few hours.

The Bass Rock is a few miles from the house but is a prominent landmark here being so distinct and so visible - most of the time anyway........

The Scudder said...

I guess your last comment sums up this wee guy's life now .,., and probably forever more.
My bet is he'll end up in the biggies jail sooner or later?
I do admire your efforts in this work Al ,,, is there no full time job here ,, you're obvioiusly well qualified and caring enough to be a very useful member of such a team .

Twisted Scottish Bastard said...

Great post Alistair, fascinating glimpse of a different world. There are times when teaching that we come across a kid who's been abused. Not perhaps physicaly or sexualy, but emotionaly. They have very low self-esteem, do some really stupid and dangerous things, and often disappear from school very suddenly. We sometimes hear that they've ended up in a unit such as you describe, and I've often wondered what they were like.

Poor little sods.

Anonymous said...

have a nice weekend

Alistair said...

Scudder - I would be quite willing to lock him up in secure until he's 18 to get the treatment he heeds but I would be in the minority in seeing this as a protective measure. He is potentially so mixed up I could see him losing it and stabbing someone to death soon after release.

TSB - people think of these places as cushy but I disagree - even given the deprived backgrounds of these kids - to have almost every tiny choice taken away is difficult to comprehend as being a positive situation and after all these places are supposed to be about rehabilitation. Small concessions must mean huge things to these kids. You can see how difficult rehabilitation must be and understand why short sentences don;t allow time for things to be worked out effectively.

Cevennenwolf - Thanks. Just back from a great weekend - more about that shortly. Hope you had a good one too.

Morning's Minion said...

I have a friend who worked professionally as a coucelor on such cases. She found it very emotionally exhausting, citing that there was such a hopelessness--not enough could be accompished with limited intervention to ever correct the abuses and experiences of even very young children.
You wrote this well--giving me a chilling sense of locked doors and impersonal spaces.

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