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7 Mar 2013

Ashfield Prison punished children unlawfully, High Court rules after Howard League legal challenge

A privately-run children’s prison unlawfully punished seven boys after they were involved in a protest over conditions on their wing, a High Court judge ruled today (Thursday 7 March).

Ashfield Prison, near Bristol, also violated the right to a fair trial, protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, Mrs Justice Nicola Davies found.  The Serco-run prison failed to provide essential documents to legal representatives in advance of hearings before the Independent Adjudicator when inmates faced punishments including further days’ imprisonment.

Mrs Justice Nicola Davies condemned the prison for its “wholly inadequate system” for disclosing case papers and found that senior staff had a “woeful absence of knowledge” of their legal duties.

The boys, who were aged 17 at the time and are now all 18, were kept in isolation after the incident. Five of them were subjected to an informal ‘shadow segregation’ regime, known as ‘restriction on the wing’.  This was unlawful because it lacked any of the safeguards applicable to formal segregation procedures.

All seven claimants are represented by the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The case was heard at the High Court in December 2012. The Ministry of Justice announced in January that Ashfield is to be re-rolled as an adult prison. All children are to be transferred out of the prison by the end of March.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This judgment confirms what we have been saying for a long time, and what the government has now recognised – Ashfield is no place for a child.

“If staff don’t know what the prison rules are and make them up as they go along, how can children be expected to comply and learn to be good citizens?

“Ashfield is an unsafe establishment run for profit which has seen appalling levels of violence, with 1,039 assaults recorded last year, as well as excessive use of restraint. We are very pleased that it will no longer hold children.

“It was encouraging to see that, only a few weeks after this case came to the High Court, ministers decided that Ashfield should be re-rolled.”

The court heard that the boys were punished after they were involved in a protest on an astro-turf pitch at the prison.

The incident was witnessed by a district judge, who was visiting the site in his role as an Independent Adjudicator. Despite being invited to recuse himself from either conducting the boys’ adjudication hearings or passing sentence, he declined and imposed additional days’ imprisonment on each of them.

A claim against the Independent Adjudicator was settled in the boys’ favour last year. The additional days were taken off their sentences – 90 days in total.

Research by the Howard League, conducted independently of this case, revealed that children at Ashfield were given extra days totalling more than five years’ imprisonment between January 2010 and April 2012 – far more than any other children’s prison in England and Wales.

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the UK. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  1. The rolled-up hearing was heard in the High Court in London on 4 to 6 & 12 December 2012. Ms Phillippa Kaufmann QC and Ms Caoilfhionn Gallagher of Doughty Street Chambers (instructed by the Howard League) acted for the claimants.

Further information

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