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Frances Crook's blog · 4 Mar 2019

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse: Here’s what should happen next

Frances Crook in front of office bookshelves

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has published its findings on how children in jails have been victims of sexual abuse. It found more than 1,000 allegations of abuse and says that there are too many children in custody, particularly too many remanded to custody, and this is putting them at risk.

The report cites “appalling abuse and institutional failures” and says that children in secure training centres (STCs) run by G4S, MTCNovo and the prison service are not safe, nor are children in young offender institutions (YOIs). Harrowing accounts of abuse permeate the report and range from crude sex acts to violation of children while staff use violent restraint methods or forcible strip searches.

The Howard League provided written and oral evidence to the inquiry – you can read our written submissions here, here, here and here – based on our experience of working with children in custody over decades.

We said that the punitive culture put children at risk: children do not feel safe enough to speak out and do not have faith that they will believed if they do. Children in prison see the law and authority as something that exists to punish them and are not empowered to invoke their rights to be safe and thrive.

We said that children are locked up in their cells for excessive amounts of time. They are exposed to violence and do not get proper education, activities or emotional support. Bullying, racism and homophobia are an integral daily experience of children in jails. Children are deprived of normal developmental experiences and their view of what healthy relationships look like becomes distorted in prison.

The Howard League proposes that the only remedy to protect children is to close down STCs and YOIs. If the state cannot guarantee the safety of a child, then no child should be placed there.

Ofsted reports have consistently said that STCs are inadequate and not safe. Inspection reports of YOIs have consistently said that they are not safe.

The good news is that there are now fewer children incarcerated than a few years ago, but too many children are still sent to prison. The Howard League proposes that the only remedy to protect children is to close down STCs and YOIs. If the state cannot guarantee the safety of a child, then no child should be placed there.

The IICSA report should be the final nail in the coffin of years of children being sexually and violently abused in jails.

It is therefore disappointing that, now the Youth Justice Board (YJB) no longer commissions prison places for children but is responsible for overseeing the system, it has not shown leadership to secure change. Instead of taking action to curtail the over-use of custodial remands of children, particularly when there is such obvious disproportionality, it is supporting new ways of locking up children through the introduction of secure schools, the first of which is to be at Medway, which features heavily in the IICSA report.

The head of the YJB is being paid to investigate the use of painful restraint on children that has been condemned outright by IICSA. It is time for the YJB to take on a proper leadership role to bring an end to the unacceptable risks posed to children in prison.

Only a handful of children require custody and they should be detained in small local authority secure units that should be part of the mainstream care system for children, overseen by local authorities and nationally by the Department for Education.

Children are children wherever they are and whoever they are. They are all our children.

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