Subjecting children to “pain-inducing restraints” in young offender institutions and solitary confinement for more than 22 hours a day should be made illegal, a report by MPs has urged.
The recommendations are contained in an investigation by parliament’s joint committee on human rights into the conditions in which about 2,500 young people are serving custodial sentences or detained in mental health units and secure children’s homes.
Painful restraints and isolation cause physical distress and psychological harm in the short and longer term and are not compliant with human rights standards, the study concludes.
Harriet Harman, the chair of the JCHR, said: “The UK is under international and domestic legal obligations to ensure that children are not subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The government must comply with its legal obligations and ensure that children in detention are not subject to solitary confinement or unnecessary or disproportionate uses of restraint.
“We realise that staff often face difficult situations. They must be supported to use better alternatives wherever possible. Increased staffing, better training and facilities, and a better mix of staffing and skills should increase the range of alternative options so that restraint and separation really are the last resort.”
MPs and peers heard from young witnesses. One young girl said: “I remember it being painful, but for me personally never for an extended period of time, because the idea of further restraint was just so uncomfortable and distressing that I would just stop and comply with whatever from there.”
The report highlights evidence from Julie Newcombe, who described how her son, Jamie, who is autistic, suffered. “He had his arm broken in a restraint, the right humerus bone. His arm was wrenched up behind his back until the bone snapped,” she said.
The report recommends “the use of specific pain-inducing techniques in youth offenders institutes should be prohibited”.
The Howard League for Penal Reform told the committee that children were being kept in their own cells in YOIs: “A 16-year-old … had been locked in his cell on the wing for over 23 hours a day for days on end … He said he was now ‘fed up with it’ and that he felt ‘caged like a dog’ … He felt sad and angry.”
The JCHR acknowledged short-term separation had a role in allowing “cooling off” after difficult incidents, but concluded: “The use of separation from human contact is harmful to children if used for more than a few hours at a time and, beyond that, it can amount to inhuman or degrading treatment that is a breach of children’s rights.”
Responding to the report, Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League, said: “The findings of this cross-party committee of parliamentarians are unequivocal. Children in the care of the state are being subjected to short- and long-term harm and that must stop.
“The Howard League particularly welcomes the committee’s finding that children in detention ‘end up in what amounts to solitary confinement (at least 22 hours per day without meaningful contact) which may be prolonged (at least 15 days’ duration)’, and that this is a ‘breach of children’s rights’ that the government has the power to prevent from happening.”