Putting child prisoners in solitary confinement is dangerous and unethical

Sean Creaney
Friday, October 30, 2015

The human rights of child prisoners lag somewhat behind rights provided to children generally. It took 13 years and a successful campaign from The Howard League for Penal Reform before the Children Act 1989 was considered relevant to children in the juvenile secure estate. Until then it was assumed children forfeited certain rights after being charged, tried and convicted in a court of law. A custodial sentence cannot avoid infringing on certain rights – liberty being one – but it should not extend to areas such as wellbeing and mental health.

However last week’s report Unlocking Potential by the children's commissioner for England exposed the extent to which welfare rights are being violated. To make matters worse this is not small-scale stuff. It is quite widespread. The report detailed the damaging effects of unnecessary use of solitary confinement in young offender institutions and the detrimental effect it is having on behaviour and outcomes.

Damaging effects of isolation

The report raises serious concerns about the purpose, use and impact of segregation. Children detained in secure custodial institutions – often the most disadvantaged and troubled children in society – are being kept in solitary confinement for disproportionate lengths of time (often for more than 22 hours to be precise) resulting in severe deterioration to their mental health and wellbeing.

Although some may depict such a practice as a way of managing problematic behaviour this can be disputed. Such sanctions are being used not as a “last resort” or for safeguarding reasons but in many cases as a form of punishment. Prison officers in a very privileged position of power are silencing children's voices and disrespecting their rights and entitlements. 

Viewed critically, one could argue that prison officers are sending out a clear message that it is they who are the ones with the power and the ones provided with the authority to control. Children are merely spectators when it comes to choice and the shaping of service design and delivery in the prison environment.

The use of solitary confinement is not only in violation of children's rights and entitlements, it is also contrary to a principled, ethical and effective way of rehabilitating a child. It only increases resentment and potential for (further) violent outbursts.

Draconian punishments

The use of solitary confinement and isolation of child prisoners needs to end. These draconian punishments must be substituted as a matter of urgency for more humane, solution-focused ways of dealing with challenging behaviour. Charlie Taylor, leading on the youth justice review, would be hard-pressed not to take note of the report's findings and its key recommendations.

Sean Creaney is a trustee at the National Association for Youth Justice

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