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Howard League blog · 26 May 2023

Problems at Cookham Wood

In April 2023, His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, issued an Urgent Notification for Cookham Wood in Kent after discovering that “solitary confinement of children had become normalised” in the prison. And today the Prisons Minister, Damian Hinds, has responded to the Chief Inspector’s concerns with an action plan for improvement.

While this is welcome, particularly in terms of commitments to improve access to education and to staff training, there are systemic issues that continue to call into question whether young offender institutions such as Cookham Wood are ever the right response to children in trouble with the law. 

In his letter to the Secretary of State for Justice, the Chief Inspector revealed that the prison is relying on segregation and separation to maintain safety, and demanded immediate action to improve the conditions in which children are being held. At the time of the inspection, 90% of children were subject to ‘keep-aparts’ and staff were managing a staggering 583 individual conflicts among just 77 children.  

Over the course of four previous inspections, HMIP highlighted significant concerns in the conditions at Cookham Wood, but the prison has continued to deteriorate. The children being held there, many of whom are vulnerable or high-risk, have been consistently failed in the level of care they are provided.  

The physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 or more hours a day without meaningful human contact is internationally accepted as “solitary confinement”. 

There is clear evidence that solitary confinement can have a profound, and lasting, adverse impact on health and wellbeing. For these reasons, there is growing international consensus – from bodies including the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture – that children and young people should never be held in solitary confinement.  

And yet, inspectors found a quarter of the boys at Cookham Wood were in solitary confinement and the average length of time that children spent separated had increased to 15 days. Two children in the prison had been alone for more than 100 days. Although concerns around separation and routine solitary confinement of children are not limited to Cookham Wood, its prevalence in a prison for children is shocking. 

The concerns raised by these figures echo what we have heard from children calling our advice line. In one instance, a child told us that he barely left his cell when he first arrived at Cookham Wood. At other prisons we have heard from multiple children who have spent months at a time on the segregation unit, removed from contact with other young people and receiving a very limited regime, generally consisting of thirty minutes alone on the exercise yard and as little as fifteen minutes’ education each day. 

And the impacts of such regimes extend beyond those in segregation units. Children in Wetherby told us that, even when not in segregation, they are spending days locked up. One child at Wetherby recently told us that he spent over four days straight in his cell – more than 96 hours without leaving, even for half an hour of exercise. 

In 2017, we took a case to court on behalf of AB, a 15-year-old child with ADHD who was locked in his cell in Feltham prison in conditions amounting to solitary confinement for 55 days, for more than 23 hours a day. The High Court found that the boy’s isolation was in breach of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – his right to private life – and the policies and procedures for keeping children in solitary confinement were reviewed. The case is now in European Court of Human Rights as we continue to argue that his treatment in solitary confinement was inhuman and degrading in breach of his article 3 rights.   

Despite the positive developments arising from this case, we have observed a significant deterioration in practices more recently. Rather than providing the productive, rehabilitative regimes these children need to thrive and return to their communities, they are being locked away with no meaningful human contact. It is crucial that something changes in the youth justice system, and that these vulnerable children are given the care and support they need to turn their lives around.   

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.)


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