Government changes law to legitimise abusive conditions in child prisons

Last Thursday (2 July), the Ministry of Justice amended the statutory rules for secure training centres to effectively try and legitimise the solitary confinement of children as young as 12. An accompanying memorandum states that children will have at least 1.5 hours out of their cells in each 24-hour period, instead of the usual 14. International rules define solitary confinement (for both adults and children) as 22 hours confined in a cell without meaningful human contact.

Children’s rights to family contact, education and work on their offending behaviour have all been diluted.

The expiry date for this removal and dilution of legal protections for children, although linked to COVID-19, is 25 March 2022.

UPDATE: We have today (7 July) submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the following information:

  1. A copy of any children’s rights impact assessment produced for The Secure Training Centre (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020.
  2. A copy of any equality impact assessment produced for The Secure Training Centre (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020.
  3. Information produced and circulated to children detained in secure training centres which explains the changes arising from The Secure Training Centre (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020.
  4. Information produced and circulated to parents of detained children, or local authorities when the child is looked after, which explains the changes arising from The Secure Training Centre (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020.
  5. Any correspondence between the Ministry of Justice and G4S Care and Justice Services and MTC in respect of The Secure Training Centre (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020.
  6. Any correspondence between the Ministry of Justice and Ofsted, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the Care Quality Commission in respect of The Secure Training Centre (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020.
  7. Any correspondence between the Ministry of Justice and the Youth Justice Board in respect of The Secure Training Centre (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020.
  8. Any correspondence between the Ministry of Justice and the Children’s Commissioner for England in respect of The Secure Training Centre (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“Children should not be held in any institution which cannot safeguard and promote their welfare. Keeping children locked up in prison cells for up to 22.5 hours a day is child abuse, there’s no question about that. It is psychologically and emotionally damaging for any child but especially cruel for those who have learning disabilities, mental health problems and for children who have endured earlier abuse and neglect.

“Predicting the enormous challenges which prisons would face in meeting children’s needs, shortly before lockdown began we wrote with other organisations to Ministers urging them to safely release children from custody wherever possible. Government did not take this protective action and now it has found it necessary to change the law to reduce the statutory obligations of the companies who run secure training centres. Yet again, when children needed the government to take a firm stance on safeguarding their rights, they have been abandoned and providers protected.”

Children as young as 12 can be detained in England’s two secure training centres. G4S Care and Justice Services manages Oakhill secure training centre in Milton Keynes, and MTC manages Rainsbrook secure training centre in Northamptonshire. In April 2020, there were 107 children detained in secure training centres.

During a COVID-19 transmission control period*:

  • The Justice Secretary has been empowered to suspend children’s right to weekly visits (of one hour), if he “considers that such a suspension is necessary as a result of the effects, or likely effects, of coronavirus on or in relation to trainees or the Secure Training Centre and proportionate to what is sought to be achieved”;
  • The duty on those running the secure training centres to ensure each child participates in education or training courses for at least 25 hours a week has been diluted to so far as reasonably practicable;
  • The duty on those running the secure training centres to provide education, training, physical education and programmes designed to tackle offending behaviour has been diluted to so far as is reasonably practicable.

There was no time given for Parliamentary scrutiny and there was no public consultation ahead of the changes. It does not appear the Children’s Commissioner for England, the statutory children’s rights body, was consulted. The accompanying Explanatory Memorandum states:

7.1 New operational guidelines, consistent with Public Health England advice, have been issued by the Youth Custody Service, HMPPS, to the Directors of the two STCs. This sets out a temporary minimum restricted regime for as long as appropriate during the coronavirus pandemic.

7.2 This temporary restricted regime is designed to prevent the spread of disease and ensure the safety and security of children and staff alike when operating with a workforce reduced by 25% through self-isolation. It is the minimum expected level of delivery during a secure estate alert level broadly comparable with Level 4 in the community. At all times STCs will be required to deliver the highest possible regime whilst still complying with health guidelines.

7.3 The temporary minimum restricted regime provides children with:
a)Reduced time out of room: At least 1½ hrs out of room a day (normally 14 hrs);
b)Reduced access to classroom education: There are opportunities to attend teacher-led sessions, in-room work and some children take part in independent study;
c)Dining on the residential units or in-room; and
d)Daily opportunities to access fresh air.

7.4 All rooms are equipped with en-suite facilities and a telephone on which additional credit has been added. Skype facilities are also available.

(The full Explanatory Memorandum can be read here)

*COVID-19 transmission control period: This is the period which starts when the Health Secretary makes a declaration that the incidence or transmission of coronavirus constitutes a serious and imminent threat to public health in England and ends when the declaration is revoked. The Health Secretary’s declaration was made on 10 February 2020.

Our 18 March 2020 letter to the Justice Secretary can be read here.

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