Content warning: child abuse, sexual abuse, rape, violence, transphobia
The government is rebranding its notorious Medway youth prison as a “secure school”. Christian charity Oasis has been brought in to run it, under the new name “Oasis Restore”. They give the place a better look than controversial previous managers G4S.
But rebranded or not, it’s still a prison, a place where children are locked up. That makes Oasis the jailers and leaves them a long way from their stated mission to “build inclusive communities all over the world”.
Campaign groups, charities and youth organisations have all condemned the plans. Jasmine Ahmed from Community Action on Prison Expansion told Corporate Watch they were calling on members of Christian communities to write to the directors of Oasis to “ask them to reject their decision based on the harm and suffering it will cause to children who will find themselves behind the prison walls for many years to come”.
So who are Oasis? In this profile we look at their operations, their leaders and their history. Before the prison, their most high profile venture in the UK was their network of academy schools. Figures from one academy shows Oasis has strayed from their values of inclusion before, by excluding high numbers of children from school.
But before we dive into that, let’s put Oasis’ new venture into context, and look at the brutal reality of Medway and the rest of the UK’s youth prisons.
Under the government’s plans the current Medway youth prison in Kent, now called a Secure Training Centre, is scheduled to close on 31 March 2020.iii It will then be refurbished and re-opened in 2021 as the “Oasis Restore” secure school, under the management of Oasis. It will imprison up to 70 children aged between 12 and 17.iv
For all the name changes, government documentation about the project suggests changes to the prison – such as painting, re-carpeting, updated CCTV and the replacement of furniture such as beds – will not be substantialv. The architecture of the site, the buildings and layout, will remain largely unchanged, while the installation of “secure windows that have integrated ligature free ventilation” is a chilling reminder that children have regularly attempted suicide there.
Oasis will have the power to set a curriculum and decide on recruitment, training and staff pay. The new prison will be inspected twice a year by social care bodies and Ofsted will then inspect the place in its third year. As we shall see, the current inspection regime has not stopped systemic abuse against children in other youth prisons.
And the abuse has been brutal. As reported previously by Corporate Watch, the Medway prison was originally managed by outsourcing and security profiteer G4S.vi It was then taken back into state control after undercover filming by BBC Panorama exposed shocking abuse by staff towards the childrenvii. This included staff members punching a child in the ribs, slapping another child in the face and using a fork to stab a child in the leg, and yet another who made a child cry uncontrollably, among other cruelties.viii
Conditions have not improved since being in state control. The most recent inspection report published in October 2019 showed the site remained a place of danger for children. It found use of force had “increased significantly”, with “pain inflicting techniques” still used on children. Managers’ refusal to refer a child who had self-harmed to the relevant authorities placed children at “unacceptable risk”. Staff shortages meant children experienced unacceptable levels of time locked in their cells, while those as young as 12 were subject to strip searches.ix
Children’s prisons: ‘very dangerous places’
Medway is not a one-off. A former Chief Inspector of Prisons describes children in custody as “very vulnerable children in a very dangerous place”.x Evidence regularly emerges that locking children up causes them severe harm.
Last year a state-appointed Independent Inquiry published a report about sexual abuse in custodial institutions.xi It found 1,070 reported incidents of alleged sexual abuse between 2009 and 2017. Of these, 578 were described in terms equating to sexual assault or rape.xii One child in Rainsbrook prison told his mother (and made a written complaint) that a staff member had threatened to rape him if he did not behave and calm down.xiii
These are just the reported cases. One witness to the inquiry described how they were too afraid to complain about sexual abuse suffered under fear of violence.xiv
Campaign groups, charities and prisoner support groups are very sceptical that Oasis can tackle such endemic problems. Oasis has made much of the power of its Christian values, with Chalke saying their “Christian ethic” can “produce a different result” in the new prison. There is no evidence or suggestion of sexual abuse in any Oasis facility. But proclaiming a Christian ethic as a remedy for problems that include widespread abuse may cause more concern than reassurance, given the recent history of abuse within a range of Christian institutions.
Child Imprisonment and the Prison Industrial Complex
Youth prisons are part of the broader prison industrial complex that believes social and economic problems can be solved through punishment and imprisonment.
The children being sent to these prisons are disproportionately of colour and from working class backgrounds. Child Welfare Professionals warn that children who now come to court have grown up in the most dysfunctional and chaotic families, where drug and alcohol misuse, physical and emotional abuse and offending is common.xvii Evidence shows that by March 2017, children from a Black and minority ethnic background made up around 43 percent of the population of children under 18 in custody.xviii
And the justice system does nothing to help them. Courts are only supposed to put the most ‘dangerous children’ in the dock, for example. But a recent investigation by the Guardian found children brought to court in handcuffs and locked behind bulletproof glass in a secure dock after committing only minor offences or breaches.xix They also found children in court without legal representation, a parent or a social worker to support them.
When asked what a successful secure school looks like to him, Oasis founder and boss, the Reverend Steve Chalke, told Schools Week: “The same thing as a successful school. Young people who become fulfilled through an inner journey to a sense of self-worth, self-love and self-respect who, five or ten years after leaving, are still thriving.”
His charity has never before operated in a custodial environment and Chalke is taking an incredible risk to believe that Oasis can lock children in a cell and get different results to its predecessors.
But Chalke has always thought big. Aged 14, he felt that God wanted him to tell people about Jesus and to start a hostel, hospital and school for the poor.xx. A young Baptist, he realised he “could not evangelise the world on his own” and so began Oasis in 1985.xxi Oasis has been engaged in a mission to bring in the ‘Kingdom of God’xxii ever since and has started projects worldwide.
As Oasis has grown, so has Chalke’s public profile. He was part of the GMTV morning show in the 1990s and a presenter on Songs of Praise. One over-enthusiastic fan called him the “raunchy vicar”.xxiii
Image from: By Howard Lake from Colchester, UK – Steve Chalke at #iofnc, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18554283
The Oasis Charitable Trust was officially incorporated in the UK 1993. Its subsidiary Oasis Community Partnerships runs‘hubs’ across the UK. These see a building host projects such as food banks and employment training, often alongside churches and one of Oasis’ schools.
Another subsidiary, Oasis UK Trading Ltd, runs a coffee shop ‘The Hub Coffee House’ in London Waterloo,xxiv while Oasis Aquila Housing Ltd offers supported accommodation for victims of domestic violence, young people and families facing homelessness. They have three projects in Gateshead and two in London. xxv
But by far Chalke and Oasis’ biggest UK operation is their network of school academies. In 2007 they opened their first school and are now managing 52 academies across England as part of the Oasis Multi-Academy trust.xxvi They also operate Oasis IT Services Ltd for the schools.xxvii The accounts of the whole Oasis group show the academies make up around 95% of their roughly £200 million budget.
Oasis likes to talk about the “inclusive, integrated and empowering” ethos in its schools but in an Oasis academy near to Medway, the reality does not back up the rhetoric. Freedom of information requests by retired headteacher Peter J Read, who now works as an independent education advisor supporting families in the Kent and Medway area, showed the Oasis Academy in the Isle of Sheppey temporarily excluded 1,025 children in the 2018/19 school year. This was the highest of any school in Kent and Medway. The year before, the school ranked second, with 786 exclusions.
Other examples from Oasis schools suggest they have limited tolerance for children who do not conform with their expectations. Tools such as ‘progress passports‘, for example, have angered parents.xxx More than three behaviour points result in detention and these can be given for anything from wearing a coat indoors to hiccuping in class.xxxi. In Oldham at Oasis Academy Limeside it is not only the kids that are punished – parents are fined £1 for every minute they are late collecting their children from the school.xxxii. The school received a damning Ofsted report last year as Ofsted wrote that “pupils have made exceptionally poor progress for the last three years”.xxxiii
A disturbing trend in UK schools is the use of isolation. Research by the Department for Education showed that over half of secondary schools use ‘Internal Inclusion Units’.xxxiv An investigation by Schools Weekfound that primary schools are using isolation rooms to punish pupils as young as five years old while secondary schools are sometimes putting older pupils into seclusion rooms for more than five days in a row.xxxv Separated spaces come in different shapes and sizes from booths to cell-like rooms.
A pupil sitting in an isolation booth. Image from: https://www.bbc.com/news/education-46044394
More freedom of information requests by Peter Read in Kent found 39% of the student body had been sent to the Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey’s ‘Reflection Room‘, which:
“requires pupils to sit in a room and ‘Reflect’ on their behaviour for a whole day, an utterly unrealistic expectation that a day of boredom will improve matters. Astonishingly, 39% of the whole student body has been subject to this humiliating punishment, many on multiple occasions. The reality is that Reflection is utterly destructive, inevitably producing antagonism towards and alienation from the school, is almost certainly unlawful as the child has been forcibly deprived of education without provision for catching up, and indeed could be regarded as child abuse.”xxxvi
In the same school, a child who had answered a call from a friend asking her to apologise for being late due to bus issues was told to ‘go to reflection’. She called her mum in tears after the punishment. In the Oasis Academy Wintringham, a teenager spent a day in isolation at after wearing trainers in place of his shoes that were wet from the snow.
Parent Jessica Timmis writes on the Ban the Booths campaign website that she found out her 12 year old son had been placed in isolation 20 plus times for wearing white socks. “My son was put in isolation for ten days back to back once and was a veritable mess”. This was after the sudden death of his Father. “I shudder to think what went through his head all those hours he spent staring at the wall not knowing how to process his grief. As a parent I’m furious that my son was put through this and I never want it to happen to any other child.” She now home schools her son and campaigns to end isolation units in schools.
Jasmine Ahmed from CAPE believes that isolation rooms are using the same principles as the prison system:
“Instead of addressing the root causes of challenging behaviour, whether that’s childhood trauma and abuse, or physical or mental health challenges, we respond with exclusion and punishment – the same principles and ideologies which underpin the prison system.”
Graphic from the Ban the Booths Campaign: https://banthebooths.co.uk
Oasis have also failed to prevent transphobia in their schools. Coron Kraatz from Cleethorpes was admitted to hospital with concussion after being repeatedly stamped on the head by a bully at Oasis Academy Wintringham in Lincolnshire. A trans girl was sent home from Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey and told to take off her wig and make up after her first brave attempt to be open at the school.
Oasis Academies have been troubled by riots since conversions to academies began. Fed up pupils demonstrated at Oasis Academy Mayfield in Southampton in 2008 and their dissent later turned into a riot of criminal damage, smashing windows and ripping TVs from walls. Shock redundancies at Oasis Academy MediaCityUK in Manchester in 2011 also triggered strikes from teachers while pupils set off fire alarms and fireworks.
The Oasis International Foundation runs Oasis’ missionary and charitable work abroad, from Kyrgyzstan to Zimbabwe.xl Many of the projects listed on their website appear uncontroversial but, for all its talk of inclusion, Oasis’ work abroad has involved some pretty questionable partnerships.
Now, for example, Oasis and Chalke are keen to stress the importance of LGBT rights. But in Bangalore, India, for example, they have worked in collaboration with Young Life in America since 2001xli. Young Life is a US Christian group whose homophobic attitudes has led to it being rejected recently by one US collegexlii
Another worrying partnership for anti-youth prison campaigners may be Oasis’ apparently uncritical partnerships with law enforcement. The Stop the Traffik initiative sees Oasis collaborate with police forces worldwide against human tracking. They have developed software for police to help trace children and criminals involved in trafficking. The police’s role in the discriminatory criminal justice system described above does not appear to concern them, with the Stop the Traffik website describing law enforcement as playing “a central role in keeping a community safe and preventing crime.”xliv
Ironically, Stop The Traffik’s slogan is “people shouldn’t be bought and sold”. The government will pay Oasis more than £160,000 a year for each child imprisoned in Medway.xlv
More generally, Oasis’ missionary work has caused concern among campaigners. Zahra Bei from No More Exclusions has described Oasis’ missionary work as “anxiety-inducing” in the context of it running a youth prison, due to the “long colonial history of Christian missionaries and charities” and the “highly racialised and classed nature of prison populations”.xlviii
Who’s in charge?
The parent organisation of the Oasis group is the Oasis International Association. It was set up to be an umbrella for Oasis projects around the world.
Oasis appears motivated by the values of capitalism as well as Christianity and the board reflects these two priorities.
Its directors include the kind of people you might expect to serve for a christian charity: religious studies teacher Mark Chater, another teacher Elaine Dunn, support worker Jean Herbert and Adri-Marie van Heerden, who runs a missionary project called The Rhythm of Life in South Africa.
But their fellow directors are people you would expect to find in a more corporate setting. The Chairman of the Oasis board is John Whiter, a city accountant and director of insurance brokers PIIQ Risk Partners Ltd and Ed Broking Group Ltd, both owed by major insurance broker BGC. He is joined by PwC management consultant Antony Cook; biotech and pharmaceutical industry advisor John Slater; ex-Lloyd’s Bank director Paul Turner (still a director at the Commonwork trust at organic farm Bore Place); and Chief Marketing Officer for IBM, Caroline Taylor.
Taylor describes herself as a “passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion and a proud LGBT+ ally”. How does she feel about Oasis’ move to open a prison that will disproportionately lock up children from BME backgrounds?
Image from Bank of America twitter: https://twitter.com/BofA_Business/status/922540261087088641
‘Freedom for the prisoners’
Graham Mungeam, a director of Oasis Charitable Trust and Oasis Community Learning, published a book about the history of Oasis called ‘Faith at Work’ in 2006. It ends with a quote from the Gospel of Luke: “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s flavour.”xlix
Fourteen years on, his organisation is set to lock up some of the UK’s most vulnerable children. In response, Jasmine Ahmed from the Community Action on Prison Expansion campaign told Corporate Watch:
“Given Oasis’s self-identification with the values of social inclusion and social justice, we thought they would be allies in opposing a project that has the ability to brutalise and harm children whose behaviour is an outcome of an unjust society, poverty and traumatic childhoods. Instead they are complicit”.
x ‘Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 Investigation Report’, Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (February 2019). https://www.iicsa.org.uk/publications/investigation/custodial
xi‘Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 Investigation Report’, Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (February 2019). https://www.iicsa.org.uk/publications/investigation/custodial
xii ‘Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 Investigation Report’, Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (February 2019). https://www.iicsa.org.uk/publications/investigation/custodial
xiii‘Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 Investigation Report’, Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (February 2019). https://www.iicsa.org.uk/publications/investigation/custodial
xiv‘Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 Investigation Report’, Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse (February 2019). https://www.iicsa.org.uk/publications/investigation/custodial