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HMYOI Cookham Wood: closure of failing YOI creates uncertainty for staff and children

Inspectors returning to HMYOI Cookham Wood in April found an establishment in limbo after HMPPS announced the site would be rerolled to hold adult prisoners. This decision was taken because of the population pressures in the adult estate and the failure to make improvements at Cookham Wood. 

The original inspection led the Chief Inspector to write to the Secretary of State issuing an Urgent Notification for improvement after he found widespread weapon making, violence and children held in solitary confinement with very poor access to education. While serious violence had risen and was now higher than any other prison in the country, overall levels of violence had fallen by a third and the number of weapons found had also fallen significantly. While the governor had made some improvements, national leaders in HMPPS were of the view that substantial improvements would not be made in an acceptable timeframe.

It was clear that staff, including the governor, had not been aware of the decision until shortly before it was made. New staff, including teachers and dozens of youth justice workers, had just started or were in training. Capital investment, including refurbishing residential units and installing new classrooms, was also in progress or had been completed very recently.

For those boys who remained at Cookham Wood, however, time out of cell remained very poor and access to education, despite the governor’s efforts, had been compromised by the decision to close the institution as staff had had to adopt a “carousel” model to take account of the rapidly declining population as children were moved elsewhere. In this model, boys attended vocational courses based on whether there were a sufficient number of boys to run the programme on a particular day. As a result, some boys found themselves repeating being taught the same things and failing to develop any new knowledge or skills.

At the time of the review, which took place in April 2024, there was little clarity about the future of the site despite closure expected to take place just weeks later at the end of May. Staff had been told nothing about what they would do after this. Inspectors were however impressed by how well staff engaged with the inspection team and their evident care for the children during this period of uncertainty.

Cookham Wood has been allowed to fail for years without concerted action to improve the conditions in which children were being held. What is needed is a coherent plan to improve the provision on offer to these children so they can go on to lead crime-free lives when they are released.
Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Notes to editors

  1. A copy of the full report, published on 21 May 2024, can be found on the HM Inspectorate of Prisons website at: 
  2. This independent review of progress took place between 9-17 April 2024.
  3. HMYOI Cookham Wood is a young offender facility in Kent which can hold 120 boys between the ages of 15 and 18. At the time of the IRP, the population stood at just 33.
  4. On 21 March 2024, three weeks before this independent review of progress, HMPPS announced that children would be moved out of Cookham Wood and the site would reopen as an adult prison.
  5. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  6. Please email if you would like more information.