Anti-torture experts condemn mistreatment of children

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture yesterday released its analysis of how well the UK complies with the anti-torture treaty we ratified in 1988, in relation to both adult and child detainees. Committee members visited the UK last year. A child prison in Kent, Cookham Wood young offender institution (YOI), was one of the sites inspected. The Committee also examined the care and treatment of children with mental health problems detained in police custody. Findings and recommendations to the UK Government include:

  • The Committee notes the child abuse scandal of the then G4S-run Medway secure training centre (STC), exposed by BBC Panorama last year, and recommends an urgent review of “the current operating model of the YOIs and STCs with a view to ensuring that, if exceptionally necessary to hold juveniles in detention, the secure juvenile estate is truly juvenile-centred and based on the concept of small well-staffed living units”. It states children’s welfare “should lie at the heart of the juvenile detention system”.
  • None of the prisons visited “could be considered safe for prisoners or staff”. In Cookham Wood child prison, the Committee found that “the high levels of violence were managed primarily through locking juveniles up for long periods of time, on occasion for up to 23.5 hours per day”. A “vivid pink sign” stating “do not unlock” was stuck on children’s cell doors to denote they were at risk of either perpetrating or suffering violence. Committee members met a child “who spent 23.5 hours a day lying on his bed, under his covers, blankly looking at a TV screen, talking and meeting no one”. Another boy, aged 15, had been held in these appalling conditions “for several weeks”. The Committee concluded: “holding juveniles in such conditions amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment” and recommends the UK authorities” take urgent steps to provide all juvenile prisoners – especially those on ‘separation’ or ‘protection’ lists – with a purposeful regime, including physical activities and considerably more time out-of-cell than currently provided”.
  • Long delays were reported in the local authority investigating child protection allegations at Cookham Wood. The Committee described this and other safeguarding deficiencies as “protection gaps”. It recommends that members of staff who are the subject of mistreatment allegations should not be undertaking duties that bring them into contact with the alleged victim until the matter has been fully investigated.
  • Children in Cookham Wood who were punished by “cellular confinement” were held in cells, which “were dark, dirty, poorly lit and inadequately ventilated”. Many children complained about being locked in their cells for excessive periods, so the Committee checked official records. They found five children had been held in solitary confinement for more than 20 days in January 2016; three of them 31 days. In September 2015, one child had spent 52 days in solitary confinement. Periods of segregation lasting 80 days had been recorded by the child prison. The Committee examined data for other child prisons and found them to be “staggering”. It cites two cases of children in Wetherby and Werrington YOIs being segregated for a period of 84 days. The Committee recommends Cookham Wood segregation cells “be refurbished and undergo a deep clean on a regular basis”. It makes two strong general recommendations relating to the solitary confinement of children: first, that the UK urgently abolish prison powers to hold children in solitary confinement as punishment; and second, that segregation units are replaced with “small staff-intensive units”.
  • The Committee found that staff from an adult immigration detention facility (now closed) had been used to cover staffing shortages. Children reported they were “less helpful and more distant” than staff who had elected to work with children. The Committee recommends staff “should be carefully selected for their personal maturity, professional integrity and ability to cope with the challenges of working with – and safeguarding the welfare of – this age group”.
  • 43 children at the time of the Committee’s visit to Cookham Wood were not receiving any education. The majority “were offered around three and a half hours [out of their cells] to exercise, associate and eat communally”.
  • Nurses were not available during the night at Cookham Wood, which the Committee recommends should be rectified. Children were handed their medication through “a small hatch” which “meant that other prisoners could see and overhear medical details”. Although 50 children at the prison were receiving mental health care, the institution had no dedicated consultation room. Children with serious psychiatric problems about to turn 18 endured “considerable delays” being transferred to hospital.
  • Children held in Cookham Wood were allowed outdoor exercise only once every two days, for 30 minutes at a time. The Committee recommends they be allowed outside for at least one hour a day.
  • More generally, the Committee expresses concern about children with mental health problems being placed long distances from home. It also welcomes Government policy commitments to end the practice of children with mental health problems being detained in police custody, though states this should be enshrined in legislation.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:

“This devastating report shows, once again, that vulnerable children are being held in intolerable prison conditions and they are suffering great harm. These are children in the care of the state or big businesses running prisons for profit.

“Penal practices and institutions should have long since been abandoned for children. As political parties busily prepare their election manifestos, it cannot be too much to ask that they each commit to close down child prisons and invest in interventions that have the child’s well-being at heart. This is not only humane, it is basic common sense – you don’t improve children’s well-being, behaviour and home circumstances by locking them in a tiny, squalid room for 23 and a half hours a day”.   

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