Children in prison in England & Wales suffer state-sanctioned abuse

New report on restraint, segregation & strip searching of children in prison

Source: Howard League for Penal Reform

Source: Howard League for Penal Reform


Child prisoners in England & Wales are subject to unlawful restraint, extended solitary confinement and random strip-searches according to a new report by the Howard League for Penal Reform

The Carlile Inquiry 10 years on says that the “illegal, systemic, physical abuse of children, sanctioned by the state” continues a decade after an independent inquiry by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC called for reforms.

“Children in custody are mistreated, abused, and suffer a punishing regime,” said Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League. “I fear that the government will attempt to invent new forms of child custody that might simply replicate the abusive regimes of the past 20 years.”

The Howard League’s report comes after an investigation by the BBC’s Panorama programme in January revealed serious incidents of child abuse, coercion and falsification of records at Medway secure training centre in Kent.

In 2006, Lord Carlile said that:

  • restraint should never be used on children as a punishment or to secure compliance
  • the infliction of pain on children was unacceptable and may be unlawful
  • strip-searching children should be risk-led
  • prison segregation units should not be used for children

Some improvements have been made since Lord Carlile’s report, especially with regard to routine strip searches. And there are also far fewer children in prison in England & Wales – under 1,000 now compared with nearly 3,000 a decade ago.

But the Howard League said it still has serious concerns about restraint, solitary confinement and strip-searching of children in prisons.



Solitary confinement of children in prison 

Solitary confinement of children in prisons in England & Wales is now more widespread than it was during Lord Carlie’s inquiry 10 years ago according to The Howard League. 

Lord Carlile described the prison segregation units back then as “little more than bare, dark and dank cells that exacerbate underlying risks and vulnerabilities”.

The most recent survey of children in prison found that more than a quarter of boys had been held in segregation units at some point. In 2013-14, children spent 7,970 days in prison segregation units.

One boy at Cookham Wood was held in solitary confinement for almost four months in 2015 while incidents of segregation rose 37 per cent in one recent six-month period at Feltham prison in London.

Unfortunately, there is no centrally-held data on the number of children placed in segregation units, or any information on why and for how long children are confined.

A related problem is “restricted regimes” where prisoners are held in their cells for 22-23 hours a day due to staff shortages and rising violence. At Feltham, over a quarter of prisoners were on restricted regimes – “in effect, solitary confinement on their residential units”.

Boys on the most restricted regime had to choose between a shower, telephone call or exercise within a 30-minute period.

There is little research on the effect of solitary confinement on children. But the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, studying its impact on adults in 2011, concluded that “some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible” after 15 days.



Restraint and use of force on children in prison 

The courts have ruled that using physical force on a child to get them to do as they are told is unlawful, but the Howard League says the practice is still widespread.

Children in prisons in England & Wales have suffered 4,350 injuries in the last five years while being restrained. Restraint accounts for 22-34 per cent of all the times force is used on children.

Although the number of incidents involving the use of force has been reduced, the rate per 100 children in custody has more than doubled between 2011-15.

At Cookham Wood there had been 400 use of force incidents in the six months before the inspection compared with 282 before the previous inspection.

In one incident in Cookham Wood, a boy was restrained for refusing to leave a room after a review into whether he was at risk of harming himself. Inspectors found that force was used quickly and escalated to an officer kicking the boy.

The Howard League says that more than a third of all approved restraint “techniques” that can be used on children involve force that causes the deliberate infliction of pain.

One prisoner recalled his experience of being restrained:

“One member of staff grabbed my neck and then others pushed me to the ground and held me there telling me to calm down. While I was on the floor a male member of staff was holding my head almost between his knees. I have been sexually abused in the past so you can imagine how that made me feel. I was terrified.”



Strip searching of children in prison

In 2006, The Carlile Inquiry recommended that the routine strip-searching of children should end and be replaced by a risk-led approach.

This new approach has been adopted, but in practice many children are still being strip-searched. In 2015, there were 367 strip-searches of boys in prison.


In conclusion 

The Howard League has called for prisons and the privately-run secure training centres to be closed down and replaced by small, local units.

It also said the over-representation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) children and those needlessly held on remand need to be addressed.

“It is time that the government recognises that the use of force on children, simply to make them do what they are told, is both unacceptable and unlawful,” said Lord Carlile. “A healthy response to children in trouble with the law, which has their welfare at its heart, would recognise this use of violence by adults as an admission of failure.”

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