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Howard League blog · 27 Mar 2024

It is good that boys are being moved out of Cookham Wood. But we should not stop there.

Last week, the government announced that Cookham Wood, a prison in Kent for boys aged 15 to 18, will close and be repurposed to accommodate adults. The Ministry of Justice said that the prison could be holding men as early as the summer, while options are being reviewed for its longer-term use. The children will be transferred to other sites.  

On one hand, this is a familiar story of criminal justice policy failure. Sentences have got longer and longer, and the prison population is growing larger and larger. At the end of March 2021, there were about 78,000 people in prison. Three years later, that number has risen to about 88,000. It could rise to 114,800 by March 2028. So, ministers and officials are becoming increasingly desperate in their search for places to hold adults. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, is not alone in suggesting that the change of use for Cookham Wood is driven by a failure to plan for more adults, and not the urgent need to provide better support for children.

On the other hand, it is good that boys are moving out of Cookham Wood. The Howard League has warned for many years that this prison is unsafe and unfit for children. Again and again, we have raised the alarm about assaults and use of force and the pain and misery of children held there. The prison was made the subject of an Urgent Notification in April 2023 after an unannounced inspection by HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found that “solitary confinement of children had become normalised” and almost a quarter of boys reported feeling unsafe. Inspectors found two boys who had been held in conditions amounting to solitary confinement for more than 100 days. 

The government responded with an action plan within four weeks and promised “to monitor progress well beyond this initial 28-day period until we are satisfied that there is sustained improvement”. But the situation has barely improved. Data disclosed in response to parliamentary questions by Janet Daby MP show that children in Cookham Wood spent more than 21 hours a day locked in their cells on average during November and December 2023, and a little less than 21 hours a day in January 2024 (figures for each month can be found here: November, December, January).  

We await more information about where the boys in Cookham Wood will go. Unfortunately, it is likely that they will be moved to other prisons, and none of these offer children meaningful time out of their cells, adequate education, or the care and opportunities they need for rehabilitation. The data show that boys in Werrington prison, in Staffordshire, spent about 20 hours a day locked in their cells on average, while boys in Feltham prison, in west London, were locked up for about 19. Children in Wetherby prison, in West Yorkshire, were in their cells for about 18 hours per day on average. Boys in Parc prison, in south Wales, were locked up for about 14 hours per day in November and December, but this rose to about 16 hours in January.

In all five prisons, time out of cell was significantly worse at weekends, when there are typically fewer staff on duty. And there are fears that children could be spending even longer locked up than the official figures suggest – in an HMIP report on Wetherby prison, published earlier this month, inspectors noted that leaders “monitored time out of cell, but we found that this consistently overestimated the reality for most children”.

Prison is no place for a child, and I am glad that boys are being moved out of Cookham Wood. But we should not stop there. This should be the first step towards the closure of all prisons holding children.

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.)



  • Claire Tomalin says:

    Thank you for helping children who should not be held in prison. It is good that you are working to prevent children being imprisoned.

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