Inspectorate calls for end to 'harmful solitary confinement' of child prisoners

The chief inspector of prisons is calling for a major overhaul of the way isolation is used in young offender institutions (YOIs) after an investigation revealed “multiple and widespread failings” in current practice.

Some children left their cells for just 15 minutes a day, the report states. Picture: Adobe Stock
Some children left their cells for just 15 minutes a day, the report states. Picture: Adobe Stock

The latest report on the separation of children in YOIs, published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, says many separated children in prison service accommodation are “effectively held in harmful solitary confinement” with little human contact and in conditions which risk damaging their mental health.

The investigation, carried out in May and June last year across the five YOIs in England and Wales, found one in 10 children were officially separated, some for prolonged periods of time.

In the worst cases, children left their cells for just 15 minutes a day and were unable to access the “very basics of everyday life” including a daily shower and telephone call, the report states.

Eight children waiting to transfer to secure hospitals to be treated for mental health conditions had spent a combined total of 373 days in separation, it adds.

The inspectorate conducted 85 interviews with children separated either for their own safety or because they posed a risk to others, and concluded 57 of these cases were a “cause for significant concern”.

It says daily checks by managers, nurses and chaplains were “cursory”, often taking place through a locked door - sometime not even being carried out - meaning children were left with little human contact.

Several children described sleeping most of the day when separated and then being awake at night.

“None of this promoted good mental or physical wellbeing and was not being addressed by staff or managers,” the report states.

Inspectors said dramatic variations in children’s experience of separation across the five secure settings was “inexplicable” given the size of the estate holding just over 600 children.

Peter Clarke, the chief inspector, said: “The weaknesses of current practice and oversight are of such a magnitude that we recommend an entirely new approach, and that current practice be replaced.

“A new model of separation should be implemented that enables managers to use separation to protect children from harm and prevents separated children being subjected to impoverished regimes,” he said.

The inspectorate understood there were occasions when it was in a child’s best interests to be separated from others because they posed a risk to their peers or needed protection from them, he added.

“In these cases, we expect managers to place separated children in a unit where they can gain access to the equivalent daily activity, including education, as the children they are separated from.

“We also expect staff to work with children to address the reasons for their separation and plan for their return to a normal regime,” said Clarke.

Responding to the report, the Howard League for Penal Reform, said it was “horrific” that children were spending days on end locked alone in their cells.

Frances Crook, the charity’s chief executive, said: “If this were happening in any other setting, we would expect to see criminal investigations.

“Every child needs fresh air, education and contact with other people if they are to grow up, thrive and lead healthy lives.”

The charity said it was representing a young person, known as AB, who was the subject of a High Court judgment after being kept in “solitary confinement” for a prolonged period at Feltham YOI when he was 15.

He was found to have been locked alone in his cell for more than 23 hours a day and received no education or access to activities.

The charity said: “The High Court found this was unlawful as it did not comply with the requirements of the rules for young offender institutions or guidance issued by the Secretary of State for Justice.

“The report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons shows that the arrangements put in place following the judgment have not been successful.”

Dr Max Davie, officer for health improvement at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said: “The treatment of these highly vulnerable young people, most of whom will have mental health issues, is shocking and appalling. Urgent action is needed to safeguard their mental health.

"Last year we published healthcare standards for young people in secure settings. Today’s report show that we are nowhere near the standard of care and decency that children and young people deserve. The use of restraints, solitary confinement, and a lack of basic decency – these practices are unacceptable and deeply counter-productive.

“We also need to look at how these young people have ended up in this situation. Paying proper attention to the early signs of challenging behaviour, and a thorough investigation of underlying causes, can very often make a huge difference and help ensure that we keep children and young people out of secure settings.”