Serious child protection concerns at child prison

Today’s inspection report on Wetherby juvenile young offender institution, which includes a specialist unit for children who find it impossible to cope in a mainstream prison, raises a catalogue of child protection concerns.

There were 272 boys in the prison at the time of the inspection. In the main prison, 29% of boys had formerly been looked after by local authorities; in the specialist Keppel Unit this was 42%.

Inspectors warned that:

  • Only one of 21 safety recommendations made at the last inspection, in January 2015, had been achieved
  • Two suicidal children were “kept for long periods in cells bare of furnishings and personal belongings”. One of the boys was made to wear strip-clothing at night. Inspectors said, “These sterile conditions gave too much priority to mitigating risk rather than providing a humane environment that promoted [children’s] wellbeing”
  • Two children had been strip-searched while held under restraint. The report explains, “This is one of the most invasive procedures that can be carried out by the state and an alternative should always be sought.” Neither of the incidents had been referred to the local authority for independent scrutiny
  • Inspectors could not assess whether strip-searching was appropriate (and therefore lawful) in the segregation unit, as its use was not recorded in the strip-searching log
  • The deliberate infliction of pain on children during restraint continued, despite repeated objections from the prisons inspectorate
  • Planned restraint was “rarely filmed’. This is especially alarming since body-worn cameras were one of the main child protection measures introduced in response to BBC Panorama’s undercover filming of physical abuse in G4S-run Medway secure training centre
  • 31% of children held in the main prison said staff had victimised them: 30 reported insulting remarks and 19 physical abuse
  • 38% of children held in the specialist unit said staff had victimised them: 6 reported insulting remarks, 6 physical abuse and 3 felt intimidated and threatened by prison officers
  • Life for children in the segregation unit was tantamount to neglect: “It consisted of a daily shower, 30 minutes’ exercise in a cage-like yard, meals delivered to the cell and a telephone call every other day. Only two out of seven residents on the unit at the time of the inspection were receiving education. None of the boys had sufficient activities to occupy them in their cells and radios were only issued to them during the inspection”
  • Only a quarter (26%) of children in the main prison said they could speak to an advocate when they need to
  • Less than a third (31%) of children in the specialist unit said they could speak to an advocate when they need to.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, says:

“How much more evidence do policy makers need that prisons are incapable of looking after children? This report tells us two children were held down by prison officers as their clothes were wrenched off their bodies; officers continue to deliberately inflict pain on children; 25 children reported physical abuse; officers working in the segregation unit do not even record strip-searches; suicidal children are kept in degrading conditions; and boys are allowed only 30 minutes outside in the fresh air each day, if they are lucky.

“Five months ago, Charlie Taylor issued his interim findings from his review of youth justice. He said his ambition was for smaller custodial establishments close to children’s families and communities. This latest inspection report should turn that ambition into a reality, and bring an end to the intolerable harm suffered by vulnerable children.”

Read the full report.