In this blog, Tiegan Mercer, a former Prison Officer with Unlocked Graduates at HMP Woodhill, examines the complex and diverse needs of young adult men in prison and proposes solutions so prisons and criminal justice systems can better respond to and accommodate these needs.
In the UK, multiple reports have been written to government challenging the current management of young adults in custody and have made recommendations for a distinct approach to be developed for this age group. The continued mistreatment of the young adult population in prison is not, however, limited to the UK. In fact, many penal systems across the world are failing to understand the complexities of this offending population and consequently, young adults are not receiving the special provisions they require. There is an overarching conclusion across dominant reports that a specific approach should be adopted to better account for the distinct and complex needs of the young adult offender population, given their stage in development and presenting behaviours.
The profile of young adult offenders
There is growing evidence that demonstrates young adults have distinct needs and vulnerabilities, born out of their youth and immaturity. This presents a major issue for penal systems because in the majority, once a young person has surpassed their eighteenth birthday, they are legally tried as an adult. In some countries, young people are treated as adults before they have reached the age of 18.
While individuals tend to reach physical maturity during mid-adolescence, and intellectual maturity by the age of 18, emotional and social maturity continues into a person’s mid-twenties. Evidence suggest that the parts of the brain associated with impulse control continue to develop well into adulthood. This is known as psychosocial maturity and consists of three components which are thought to influence the maturity with which individuals judge situations and decide how to act in those situations: responsibility, temperance and perspective.
Responsibility: involves having a clear and stable identity, being able to resist peer influence and the ability to be self-sufficient.
Temperance: refers to the ability to regulate and manage emotional states, impulses and risk-taking.
Perspective: involves the ability to see beyond oneself when considering a problem, to consider others’ perspectives, the wider context in which the problem sits and the long-term consequences.
It is evidenced that young adult offenders tend to have low self-control, which is seen to be a key factor in distinguishing offenders from non-offenders. Low self-control can be defined as the tendency to pursue short-term, immediate pleasure rather than give consideration to the long-term consequences of actions. The inability to engage in moral reasoning to form sound decisions in later life is characterised by cognitive distortions. These distortions typically take the form of inappropriate attribution of blame and intent for others and the minimisation of behaviour and its consequences; such responses are influenced by complex interactions with social and environmental factors, particularly the effects of parenting, and generates a greater likelihood of offending.
It is no surprise that young adults in contact with the criminal justice system are disproportionately affected by exposure to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and social disadvantage. A 2014 study of 64,000 American juvenile offenders found that 50% reported having experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences in comparison to 13 per cent of their college educated sample.
There is an association between poor mental health and experiences of adverse childhood events. The likelihood of experiencing depressed mood, drug use and anti-social behaviour increased with the number of adverse childhood events experienced (e.g. the experience of trauma: maltreatment, neglect, exposure to violence and household dysfunction such as parental mental health, substance misuse and divorce). According to the World Mental Health Survey Initiative, the age of onset of mental health problems shows that 75% are established by a person’s mid-twenties. Psychoses, anxiety and depressive disorders, substance misuse, eating and personality disorders are typically found to persist into adulthood with an age of onset between 12 and 24.
Young adults in prison
A 2006 study examined the experiences of young adult men between the ages of 18 to 21 held in custody in the UK, within a range of prison establishments and found that establishments that were dedicated to the age group generally performed better in how they were rated by people in prison in every aspect: safety, hygiene, healthcare, staff-prisoner relationships, incentives and earned privileges scheme and education. A more recent study examined the relationship between age and prison behaviour among young adult offenders accommodated in adult establishments found that people in prison aged 18 to 24 were more likely to experience abuse and attempt suicide. Researchers have also identified that adult prison establishments did not focus on rehabilitation programmes specifically tailored to their younger offenders, hindering the development of positive relationships with prison staff and that their overall prison experience lacked hopefulness. Other common themes that feature in the incarceration of young offenders are bullying; substance misuse; violence; and trauma.
The young adult offender category is still not receiving the level of care and support for the specific needs they have. The Harris Review investigated self-inflicted deaths in custody within the young adult offender age group (18 to 25) and concluded that all young people in custody are vulnerable with a high rate of complex and traumatic backgrounds, further compounded by mental health issues and a lack of maturity. Lyon recommends that mental health provision is a key need in young adult offender prison establishments describing them as a ‘dumping ground’ for young adults who have been failed by other public services and that the unique mental health needs of the young adult offender population are not being met. Data drawn from young offender institutions across the world reveals instability in the system, which is thought to replicate the uncertainty in many young adults’ backgrounds which only exaggerates mental health issues. The ineffective system is leading long term poor outcomes for young adult offenders, recidivism and the confirmation of a criminal identity.
The concept of maturity is very complex and age is an inappropriate determinator of the kind of penal response an offender will receive. For the young adult offender population, the level of maturity exhibited should be a valid factor which should be considered throughout the legal process. The lives of young adult offenders are riddled with complications which include, but are not limited to, adverse experiences and poor mental health. Custodial systems need to implement specialist provisions in order to ensure the correct level of care is being provided to this vulnerable population.
The young adult offender population is being overlooked by policy makers across the globe. There is a real need for policy reform that benefits this population, and a shift in attitudes toward the treatment of young adults. This is a critical period of transition for young adults, which is compounded by prison settings and requires urgent attention.
Based on the evidence, the following should be recommended:
- The young adult population (18 to 25) should be recognised within criminal justice systems as a distinct category.
- Prisons should be a last resort for young adults, and where possible, investments should be made into seeking alternatives. This group requires the same energy and imagination that is being provided for addressing the issue of children in custody, where separate institutions focused on education and progression are being planned as a model for future custody.
- In penal systems which accommodate young adults, a specific desistance-orientated approach should be implemented. For example: a full programme of purposeful activity led by specifically trained staff; reliable access to specialist services to meet assessed health and wellbeing needs; the provision of robust sentence management plans; a strong focus throughout their period of custody on resettlement into the community; and the availability of an effective personal officer scheme and family liaison programme . As a minimum, young adults should not be held in the same facilities as older offenders.
 Ministry of Justice (2013) Transforming Management of Young Adults in Custody, London.
 Transition2Adulthood (T2A) Alliance, (2012) Pathways from Crime: 10 Steps to a More Effective Approahc for Young Adults Throughout the Criminal Justice Process, London: T2A Alliance; Barrow Cadbury Trust, (2005) Lost in Transition, London: Barrow Cadbury Trust; Farrington, D. P., Loeber, R. & Howell, J. C., (2012) Young adult offenders: The need for more effective legislative options and justice processing. American Society of Criminology, 11(4), pp. 729-750.
 Marder, I., (2013) Restorative Justice for Young Adults: Factoring in Maturity and Facilitating Desistance, London: Barrow Cadbury Trust.
 Rutter, M. & Giller, H. e. a., (1998) Antosocial behaviour by young people, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 NOMS (2015) Better Outcomes for Young Adult Men: evidence based commissioning principles. London: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/462169/Better_Outcomes_for_Young_Adult_Men__P1_1_.pdf; https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/12/07/when-turning-18-means-a-transfer-to-an-adult-prison
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 Baglivio, M. et al., (2014) The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) in the lives of juvenile offenders. Journal of juvenile justice, 3(2).
 Schilling, E. A., Aseltine, R. H. & Gore, S., (2007) Adverse childhood experiences and mental health in young adults: a longitudinal survey. BMC Public Health, 7(1), p. 30.
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 Fossi, J., Lloyd, M. & Haley, R. e. a., (2006) Young adult male prisoners, London: HM Inspectorate of Prisons.
 Kolivoski, K. & Shook, J., (2016) Incarcerating Juveniles in Adult Prisons: Examining the relationship between age and prison behaviour in transferred juveniles. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 43(9), pp. 1242-1259.
 Bishop, D. & Frazier, C., (2000) Consequences of Transfer. In: F. Fagan & F. Zimrig, eds. The changing borders of juvenile transfer of adolescents to the criminal court. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 227-276.
 Connell, A. & Farrington , D., (1996) Bullying among incarcerated young offenders: Developing an interview schedule and some preliminary results. Journal of Adolescence, Volume 19, pp. 75-93; Cope, N., (2000) Drug use in priosn: The experiences of young offenders. Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 7(4), pp. 355-366; Peterson-Badali, M. & Koegl, C., (2002) Juvenile’s experiences of incarceration: The role of correctional staff in peer violence. Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 30, pp. 41-49.
 Lyon, J., (2004) Troubled Young People in Prison. Mental Health Review Journal, 9(2), pp. 24-27.