Skip Content

7 Mar 2017

High Court orders urgent hearing of legal challenge to prolonged solitary confinement of a child in prison

The High Court has agreed to hear a judicial review brought by the Howard League for Penal Reform on behalf of a boy held in prolonged solitary confinement in a London prison.

The boy, identified only as AB in court documents, has been locked in his cell for more than 23 hours per day in Feltham prison.  During the short periods out of his cell, he has been permitted no contact with any other child.

The boy is represented by the Howard League’s legal team. The charity has successfully applied to the High Court for a judicial review, arguing that the boy’s removal from association, and the lack of educational provision, is unlawful. The High Court has granted permission for the case to be heard urgently.

A statement of grounds, prepared on the boy’s behalf to assist the court, states that the practice of informally removing children from association without any statutory basis, and of subjecting children to solitary confinement, appears to be common at Feltham as well as other child prisons.

The statement continues: “If the Claimant is correct that such a practice is unlawful, and indeed if it constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of children, it is a matter of real importance that it be remedied by the courts.”

In the last two years, Howard League lawyers have supported at least six teenage boys under the age of 18 who have been in conditions of solitary confinement, for periods ranging from weeks to over six months.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Caging children for over 22 hours a day is unacceptable. All the evidence shows that it can cause irreparable damage. This practice must cease.”

In a ruling delivered in 2015, the Supreme Court held that there are “well known” risks of solitary confinement and that prolonged solitary confinement – defined as being held in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days – is particularly harmful.

The Supreme Court cited expert evidence that the prolonged solitary confinement of adults can have an “extremely damaging effect on … mental, somatic and social health” and “some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible”.

The impact can be even greater on children. In his annual report for 2014-15, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons reported that in Feltham “26% of the population were being managed on units under a restricted regime that excluded them from activities and meant that they were unlocked for less than an hour a day – in effect, solitary confinement on their residential units”.

In the same year, a report by the National Preventive Mechanism, an independent body which monitors the treatment of prisoners, stated of young offender institutions: “In many cases isolation outside the formal care and separation unit lasted for more than 22 hours a day, and could last for several weeks”. The report drew attention to a “worrying number of instances where isolation was not subject to formal governance”.

The widespread use of solitary confinement of children in prisons in England was exposed in 2015 in a report by the Children’s Commissioner. It found that one-third of children in prison will spend time in isolation and that the practice is used disproportionately in respect of children from looked after and ethnic minority backgrounds.

The legal case for AB argues that his treatment is in breach of the United Nations’ Mandela Rules, which prohibit the use of solitary confinement for children.

The solitary confinement of children in England and Wales is out of step with other countries, and there is widespread recognition that change is needed. Even in the US, a judge last month ordered the Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse, New York, to stop putting 16 and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement.

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  1. AB is represented by Laura Janes, Legal Director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, and Dan Squires QC of Matrix Chambers. An order is in place protecting the anonymity of AB in accordance with rule 39(4) of the Civil Procedure Rules, including a prohibition on publication of details that may lead to his identification.
  1. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales Annual Report 2014-15, which raised concerns about solitary confinement in Feltham prison, can be read online.
  1. Monitoring Places of Detention: The Sixth Annual Report of the United Kingdom’s National Preventive Mechanism can be read online.
  1. Isolation and Solitary Confinement of Children in the Youth Justice Secure Estate, a report published by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in 2015, can be read online.
  1. The judgment in the Supreme Court case of R (on the application of Bourgass and another) v Secretary of State for Justice, which considered the risks of solitary confinement, can be read online.
  1. More information about the court ruling in relation to the Onondaga County Justice Centre in Syracuse, New York, can be read online.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
The Howard League for Penal Reform
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7880
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

ISDN line available on 020 7923 4196 – uses a G722 system

Charity Number: 251926

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation