Child Offenders Spending 23 Hours a Day Locked in their Cells During Coronavirus Crisis
David Hencke reports on worrying developments in a longstanding issue: how the criminal justice system treats children and young people in offenders’ institutions
Hundreds of children and teenage offenders have spent much of the past year locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day during the Coronavirus pandemic in youth offender institutions and secure training centres in England, according to official reports from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and leading penal reform charities.
A shocking report by MPs on Parliament’s Justice Committee earlier this year castigated an American prison company, MTC, which runs Rainsbrook Youth Secure Training Centre in Northamptonshire for locking up teenagers for 23 hours a day and ignoring recommendations against this by inspectors. Between 26 November 2020 and 10 December 2020, one child at the establishment had a total of four hours out of his room. Five others spent 14 days in their rooms and were only allowed out for 30 minutes a day for fresh air.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as reports by the Chief Inspector of Prisons covering all seven institutions which incarcerate some 550 children between the ages of 10 and 18 in England reveal. During the COVID-19 crisis, there have been regular occurrences across these institutions whereby children have been locked up for hours, not receiving any face-to-face education or other activities.
A report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons last May, during the first wave of the pandemic, on three institutions that hold 400 child offenders found that only one small institution with 34 children run by G4S in Bridgend, Wales provided any face-to-face education.
“Only Parc was able to plan and deliver limited face-to-face education that complied with social distancing requirements,” the report stated. “As a consequence, children at Parc received over three hours out of their cell each day, compared with just 40 minutes at Cookham Wood and around an hour at Wetherby. The Government’s advice is that those who are deemed vulnerable should be able to attend education in the community. Most children held in custody would meet this definition.”
The situation has confirmed by both the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust.
“Many young adults have told the Howard League they are spending at least 22 hours a day in their cells,” a report by the charity said. “Five young adults reported that they cannot even make phone calls during this time, as they do not have phones in their cells. The internationally accepted definition of solitary confinement is the physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day.”
John Drew, campaign manager at the Prison Reform Trust, said that inspectors’ recommendations to improve the situation have often repeatedly been ignored by institutions even when they demanded change, as at Rainsbrook.
Another example is Wetherby, which incarcerates 173 children aged 15 to 17. A visit at the end of January by the inspectorate found that “leaders were delivering education on most days and children had about 4.5 hours out of cell on weekdays” but “this had not been the case for most of the previous nine months when children on the main site received very little education and less than two hours out of their cells each day”.
It found that “the weekend regime for children was particularly poor, with many children reporting having about 45 minutes out of cell” and discovered that one child requiring mental health treatment in a hospital had been “waiting 44 days in segregated conditions and subject to constant watch, with no realistic timescale for his transfer. Such delays caused unnecessary anxiety and anguish for extremely vulnerable children”.
Inspectors visited Feltham in south-west London, and Werrington in Staffordshire, last July and found that, for the whole of the pandemic up to then, “nearly all children had been locked up for more than 22 hours every day since the start of the restrictions, which had been imposed some 15 weeks before our visit. This was both disproportionate and avoidable”.
Conditions at Feltham and Werrington have improved over the pandemic with more education, including physical education. But Feltham is awaiting a Supreme Court decision over the case of AB, a 15-year-old boy with serious mental health conditions kept in solitary confinement for 55 days with no education, access to the gym, psychological treatment and left alone to eat in his cell.
The 2017 case, brought by the Howard League, is that he was subject to inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. It pre-dates the pandemic, showing how the treatment of young offenders in the criminal justice system of England and Wales has been a longstanding issue.
Campaigning by the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust has seen the number of children both arrested and in custody fall dramatically in England and Wales since 2010. Arrests have fallen from 245,763 to 71,885 in 2019; and the number of children in custody has dropped from more than 3,000 to 550.
But the proportion of black and ethnic minority children subject to arrest and detention is rising. Nine out of 10 children arrested in London and held in custody are black; and half of the children in all young offender institutions are black. This has led to the Howard League challenging the Government’s belief that institutional racism does not manifest within the system.