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20 Jan 2021

Supreme Court to hear case of child kept in solitary confinement for 55 days

The treatment of a 15-year-old boy with serious mental health problems, who was kept in solitary confinement in a London prison for 55 days, will be considered today (Wednesday 20 January) by the highest court in the UK.

The boy, identified in court documents as AB, was locked alone in his cell for more than 23 hours a day for at least the first 55 days of his detention in Feltham prison, from December 2016 to February 2017.

Throughout this period, the boy received no education and had no access to gym, psychological treatment or any purposeful activity. He ate alone in his cell. He was not allowed to have contact with any other children and had only limited contact with adults working in the prison.

The boy is represented by the legal team of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Today, in the Supreme Court, the charity will argue that the conditions of his detention in Feltham were such as to constitute inhuman or degrading treatment, in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In 2017, the High Court ruled that AB’s treatment was unlawful because the prison had not followed the correct procedures, in breach of Article 8 of ECHR, but that it did not breach Article 3.

The case then went to the Court of Appeal, where AB challenged the High Court’s decision on Article 3. At the same time, government lawyers cross-appealed the High Court’s decision on Article 8.

The Court of Appeal dismissed both the appeal and the cross-appeal in January 2019. Two years on, the case has come to the Supreme Court.

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, thrive and lead healthy lives. The practice of locking children in their cells for days on end is shocking and shameful.

“The Howard League has a long and proud history of working to prevent cruelty to children. This important and upsetting case is among the worst that we have seen.”

Dr Laura Janes, Legal Director at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “In my work with children in prison and their families over the past 15 years, I have seen the devastating impact that solitary confinement can have.

“Awareness of the harm caused has grown since AB’s case first began, and there is now a consensus that children should never be kept in such conditions.

“Change is possible. I am aware from my ongoing work that, despite the pandemic, Feltham prison, where AB was detained, has made great improvements towards eliminating solitary confinement. I hope that other prisons will follow that example.”

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

In 2020, a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons on the separation of children in prisons concluded: “The weaknesses of current practice and oversight are of such a magnitude that we recommend an entirely new approach, and that current practice be replaced.”

In 2019, a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights pointed to “evidence over several years” that children in detention can “end up in what amounts to solitary confinement (at least 22 hours per day without meaningful contact) which may be prolonged (at least 15 days’ duration)”.

The report added: “This breach of children’s rights is not a policy decision by the Government, but it is within the power of Government to prevent it.”

In 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.

Earlier that year, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health had 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.”

The UK is out of step with a growing international consensus that children should never be placed in solitary confinement.

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”.

In 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”.

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. AB is represented by Dan Squires QC and Ayesha Christie of Matrix Chambers.
  3. The Secretary of State for Justice is represented by Sir James Eadie QC, Tom Weisselberg QC, Sarah Hannett and Jason Pobjoy.
  4. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is intervening and is represented by Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC and Adam Wagner.
  5. The relevant Articles are Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 3 requires that no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Article 8 protects one’s right to respect for private and family life.
  6. 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.
  7. The thematic report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, Separation of children in young offender institutions, can be read online.
  8. Youth detention: solitary confinement and restraint, a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, can be read online.
  9. A report on the use of segregation in youth custody in England, published by the Children’s Commissioner for England, can be read online.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

Contact

Rob Preece
Campaigns and Communications Manager
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955
Email: robert.preece@howardleague.org

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