Child criminals are being held in “harmful” solitary confinement behind bars, with some let out of their cells for just 15 minutes a day, according to a report.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke has called for a “major overhaul” of the policy of separating children in young offender institutions (HMYOIs), saying this effectively amounts to them being held in “harmful solitary confinement with little human contact and in conditions which risk damaging their mental health”.
He called for an “entirely new approach” after his report found “fundamental flaws” in the use of separation at the five establishments in England and Wales, which hold around 600 offenders aged 15 to 18 – Cookham Wood in Kent, Feltham A in west London, Parc in South Wales, Werrington in Staffordshire, and Wetherby and Keppel in West Yorkshire.
Around one in 10 young offenders spoken to by inspectors had been separated during their time in custody and “in the worst cases children left their cells for just 15 minutes a day”, according to the findings.
In one case, a child in crisis was “left to lie on a mattress on the floor of a filthy cell for more than 22 hours a day with no meaningful contact”, the report said.
The Government branded the failings “completely unacceptable” and said it was making “immediate changes” as well as carrying out a review.
The report, based on an inspection in May and June, found “multiple and widespread failings” although it said there were some areas of better practice, such as in HMYOI Parc.
Inspectors found “significant” cause for concern in 57 cases it reviewed and 85 interviews it conducted with inmates and staff.
There would be occasions when it was in a child’s best interests to be separated for the risk they posed to others, or for their own protection, inspectors said.
But staff should still ensure they have access to daily activities during this time and work to reintroduce them to a normal regime, the report recommended.
Mr Clarke said: “The regime offered to most separated children was inadequate.
“Nearly all separated children spent long periods of time in their cell without any meaningful human interaction.
“We found children who were unable to access the very basics of everyday life, including a daily shower and telephone call.”
Managers asked bosses for authorisation to hold children in separation for more than 21 days on 346 occasions between May 2018 and April 2019.
None of the requests were rejected, according to the report.
The report also found:
– Eight children who had spent a combined total of 373 days in separation and were waiting to be taken to a secure hospital for treatment for mental health conditions.
– Children who had self-harmed left “isolated in unfurnished accommodation” and who had been restrained, contrary to rules.
– More than half (58%) of the children inspectors spoke to said they were locked up as a punishment even though prison rules forbid this.
– Children who “simply felt unsafe and were reluctant to leave their cells” experienced “what amounted to solitary confinement”.
Mr Clarke added: “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.”
Professor Pamela Taylor, chairman of the Faculty of Forensic Psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “It is deeply troubling that many children are still being held in solitary confinement, sometimes for long periods of time.
“We have previously called on the Government to completely abolish the solitary confinement of children in the youth justice system.
“Unfortunately this report shows that very little has changed since then, so we support the call for an entirely new approach.”
Justice minister Wendy Morton said: “It is difficult to read this report and not conclude that we are failing some of the children in our care – that is completely unacceptable and I am determined it will not continue.”
She said separation can be “necessary” but “there is absolutely no excuse for some of the practices highlighted in this report and I have asked my officials to urgently set out the steps we need to take to stop them happening”.