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21 Jan 2020

Howard League responds to report on separation of children in custody

The Howard League for Penal Reform has responded to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons’ thematic report on the separation of children in custody, published today (Tuesday 21 January). The report examines the arrangements put in place by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service in response to the High Court judgment of AB, a case brought by the Howard League.

Inspectors have called for a major overhaul after finding that many children separated from their peers in prisons were effectively being held in solitary confinement, with little human contact and in conditions that risk damaging their mental health.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Every child needs fresh air, education and contact with other people if they are to grow up, thrive and lead healthy lives.

“It is horrific and shameful that this is not happening for children in prison, who are spending days on end locked alone in their cells. If this were happening in any other setting, we would expect to see criminal investigations.

“The time has come to stop this practice and work for a solution where boys and girls are given the care and support that they need and deserve. It starts with keeping children out of prison.”

The report finds that one in ten children held in prison service accommodation are officially separated, with several others kept locked in their cells without formal oversight – some getting as little as 15 minutes out a day. In 2018–19 every one of the 346 requests to keep children separated for longer than 21 days was granted by the prison group director. That is more than 7,000 days of official sanction to keep children in isolation in prison.

The Howard League is representing ‘AB’, who was kept in “solitary confinement” for a prolonged period at Feltham YOI when he was 15 years old. The widely accepted international definition of solitary confinement is being kept for 22 or more hours a day alone in a cell with meaningful contacts and available stimuli reduced to a minimum.

AB was held in these conditions for at least his first 55 days at Feltham. He was locked alone in his cell for more than 23 hours a day. He received no education and had no access to gym, psychological intervention or any purposeful activity. He was permitted no contact with other children and had limited contact with adults.

The High Court found this was unlawful as it did not comply with the requirements of the Rules for Young Offenders’ Institutions or guidance issued by the Secretary of State for Justice.

The report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons shows that the arrangements put in place following the judgment have not been successful.

Case studies

In 2019 the Howard League received more than 30 calls from or on behalf of children who had been separated from peers and were spending all day locked up alone.

Here are some of the cases to which the Howard League legal team has been alerted:

A child with learning difficulties and mental health issues had been in segregation in a prison for 76 days.

A 15-year-old boy was spending weeks locked in his cell and not accessing education because the prison could not keep him safe. The Howard League raised this with the prison and eventually the boy was allowed to access education.

A 16-year-old, who was in prison on remand, had spent more than a week in isolation. He had mental health needs, and this was his first time in custody. He was told that he was being kept in isolation because he was unmanageable and disruptive.

An autistic child was transferred from a secure training centre to a prison against his wishes, and he found it difficult to settle. He got into fights and was hurt. Because of this, he did not feel safe to mix with other young people and spent all day locked in his cell. The Howard League wrote to the prison and a multidisciplinary meeting was convened. The boy was moved to another wing and had more access to a regime.

Growing concern

The report comes at a time of growing concern about the use of solitary confinement, with medics and children’s rights experts calling for change.

In April 2019, the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that the government “must immediately take steps to ensure that separation of children from human contact never becomes solitary confinement”.

In October 2018, a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England raised serious concerns about the use of segregation and isolation of children in secure penal settings.

In April 2018, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health issued a joint position statement calling for the solitary confinement of children and young people to be abolished and prohibited.

The three medical bodies said: “In light of its potential to cause harm, and in the absence of compelling evidence for its use, we call for an end to the use of solitary confinement on children and young people detained in the youth justice system.”

In April 2017, a report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture stated that children in Cookham Wood prison, in Kent, were “regularly held in conditions akin to solitary confinement for periods of 30 days and some for as long as 60 days or even, on occasion, up to 80 days for reasons of discipline and good order”.

In a ruling delivered in 2015 concerning adult prisoners, 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”.

In February 2017, in the US, the District Court for New York granted an injunction requiring the immediate cessation of 23-hour solitary confinement of children. The court referred to expert evidence that “solitary confinement perpetuates, worsens, or even in some cases precipitates mental health concerns that can lead to long-term and often permanent changes in adolescent brain development”.

The UK is out of step with a growing international consensus that children should never be placed in solitary confinement. In the AB case, neither the High Court nor the Court of Appeal declared his treatment was inhuman and degrading.

A decision on whether AB can appeal this aspect of his case to the Supreme Court is currently awaited.

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. The full report, published on Tuesday 21 January, can be found on the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons website:
  3. In July 2017, the High Court ruled that AB’s treatment was unlawful because it was against prison rules. The court’s judgment can be read in full online.
  4. The joint position statement published by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which calls for the solitary confinement of children and young people to be abolished and prohibited, can be read online.
  5. A report on the use of segregation in youth custody in England, published by the Children’s Commissioner for England, can be read online.
  6. The findings of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into solitary confinement and restraint can be read online.
  7. The Council of Europe’s Report to the Government of the United Kingdom on the visit to the United Kingdom carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment can be read online.
  8. In February 2017, in the case of VW and others v Eugene Conway, the District Court for New York granted an injunction requiring the immediate cessation of 23-hour solitary confinement of children.


Rob Preece
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