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18 May 2020

Howard League leads drive to keep unsentenced children out of prison during coronavirus pandemic

The Howard League for Penal Reform has today (Monday 18 May) called on the courts to stop remanding children to custody as prisons remain in lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic.

Most children in prison are being held in prolonged solitary confinement, with no face-to-face visits and virtually no education or therapy, because of severe restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic.

One in three children in prison in England and Wales are unsentenced and held on remand – the highest proportion ever recorded. Government figures indicate that most children on remand will not go on to receive a custodial sentence. The Howard League has urged the courts to keep them out of prison in the first place.

Working with Garden Court Chambers, the Howard League has produced a new guide to help lawyers representing unsentenced children. Ending the detention of unsentenced children during the Covid-19 pandemic, published today (Monday 18 May), provides legal and practical guidance for defence lawyers to resist applications to remand children to custody and assist them in making effective bail applications.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is a worrying time for everyone, but it is particularly distressing for children in prison. They are unable to see their families face-to-face, and many are spending 23 hours a day locked inside their cells, alone, without fresh air or proper education.

“At such a dangerous time, it is unconscionable to keep hundreds of children in jails – and especially so for children on remand, most of whom will not go on to receive a custodial sentence anyway.

“Every child in prison is there because a judge or magistrate has decided they should be detained. Now, more than ever, it is impossible to see how remanding children to prison is in their best interests.

“Our guide offers practical advice to help lawyers resist decisions to remand children to prison and to make applications to get them out on bail, but ultimate responsibility rests with the courts, which are required by law to put children’s welfare first.”

Kate Aubrey-Johnson, Barrister at Garden Court Chambers and author of Youth Justice Law and Practice, said: “With most criminal trials currently suspended, children remanded to custody are faced with uncertainty as to when their case will be heard.

“At a time when the Lord Chief Justice has invited the judiciary to take into consideration the impact of custody during the Covid-19 pandemic on all people, it is critical that criminal defence practitioners need to fight for children to be released from custody.

“That is why we have prepared this guide to provide practitioners with a toolkit to prepare effective bail applications for children. It has never been a more important time to ensure custody really is a last resort for children.”

The new guide was produced after the Howard League published a briefing on how the response to the pandemic has affected children in prison, drawing on the charity’s legal work and findings from independent sources including Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.

Children in prison during the Covid-19 pandemic reveals that most children are experiencing a severely restricted regime. On a recent visit, the inspectorate found that children in Cookham Wood prison were getting only 40 minutes per day out of their cells. Children in Wetherby prison were given an hour while children in Parc prison got three. All children were eating meals alone in their cells.

In most prisons, children are not receiving face-to-face education; they are receiving education sheets or worksheets under the door to be completed in their cells. One child told the Howard League that this amounted to some sheets on maths and English that took him about 25 minutes a day to complete. Another child said that his anger-management courses and art therapy had been cancelled.

Children are worried about their parents and elderly relatives and their inability to help them while stuck in prison. The inspectorate found that the suspension of visits had had “a dramatic impact” on many children, with their worries being exacerbated by not knowing how long the situation would last.

The suspension means that children are not only unable to meet their families face-to-face, but also social workers, youth offending team workers, lawyers and doctors. Some services have been withdrawn. The inspectorate found only “limited specialist mental health services for those who needed them”.

While children in prison have been given additional phone credit, this is typically their only contact with the outside world. Difficulties in contacting families and professionals make planning for release especially problematic.

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.
  2. Founded in 1974, Garden Court Chambers is a number one ranked barristers’ chambers advising solicitors, members of the public and organisations across the UK and around the world. Garden Court is committed to fighting injustice, defending human rights and upholding the rule of law.
  3. Ending the detention of unsentenced children during the Covid-19 pandemic can be downloaded from the Howard League website.
  4. Children in prison during the Covid-19 pandemic can be downloaded from the Howard League website.


Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

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