A coalition of charities today (10 December) publishes the case for urgently closing England’s child prisons, warning that they are inflicting irrevocable harm on highly vulnerable children. This harm has been aggravated significantly by the response to COVID-19.
The government committed to phasing out child prisons in 2016 but it has not closed a single juvenile young offender institution since then. One of three remaining secure training centres, Medway in Kent, was closed following decades of child protection scandals. Instead of authorising its permanent closure, ministers plan to use the prison site for their first experimental secure school. Charities say this breaches their six child prison tests, and goes against the government’s own pledge to end child imprisonment.
Today’s publication, ‘The case for ending child imprisonment’, uses a question-and-answer format to set out how to reduce the numbers of children deprived of their liberty and move to a child-centred, welfare-based approach for those children who genuinely cannot be safely supported within the community. Fifteen secure children’s homes have been closed since 2003. Had this capacity not been lost, ministers could have quickly delivered on their 2016 promise by transferring children who demonstrably cannot live safely in the community to these establishments, and supporting other children at home. The charities are now urging the government to publish its strategy and funding arrangements for closing child prisons, which must include reinvesting in vital community-based services and material support for children and families.
The joint call comes days after the publication of a scathing inspection report into Rainsbrook secure training centre in Northamptonshire. When they visited at the end of October, inspectors found that children are put into solitary confinement for their first two weeks, kept in their cells for 23.5 hours a day. There were 43 children detained at the time. The prison takes children from the age of 12 years.
Carolyne Willow, Director of Article 39, said:
“The appalling conditions which incarcerated children continue to endure during the COVID-19 pandemic are nothing short of a national child abuse scandal. The current situation cannot be allowed to continue. Children need government ministers to act – and act now. After all, we know how to look after children well, how to keep them safe and guide them to a better life. Let’s use this knowledge and humanity instead of relying on the failed, punitive institutions of the past.”
Dr Tim Bateman, Chair of the National Association for Youth Justice, said:
“The National Association for Youth Justice fully supports the campaign to End Child Imprisonment. While recent reductions in the use of child custody are welcome, it is unacceptable that more than nine in every ten children deprived of their liberty are still detained in prison type settings. This publication makes clear why imprisoning children is both shameful and ineffective. By addressing a range of potential objections, it also demonstrates that abolition is realistic and, with the appropriate political commitment, could be achieved within a short time frame.”
Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said:
“Child prisons are damaging and dangerous places. High rates of self-harm and painful restraint continue to be endemic to the culture of these institutions. Time and time again, INQUEST has seen the devastating and sometimes fatal consequences of locking children up and taking away their future.
“Reform hasn’t worked and doesn’t work – child prisons need closing down. This money must instead be reinvested in child-centred community services, youth clubs and holistic provision that prioritises support rather than punishment.”
Just for Kids Law Interim CEO Frances Mapstone said:
“Child prisons are costly and unsafe institutions that sweep vulnerable children into a current of crime from which it is impossible to escape. It’s time to replace England’s child prisons with a child rights-centred approach to youth justice. The Ending Child Imprisonment campaign report published today powerfully sets out the case for change.”
Helen Mills, Head of Programmes, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said:
“There is no such thing as a safe child prison. This valuable document takes seriously that we can – and must – do better. The proposals and institutional arrangements it sets out better enable the security and support children need. It should be a spur to concrete action for any government offering a more hopeful future for our children.”
Leo Ratledge, Legal & Policy Director of the Child Rights International Network (CRIN), said:
“The government committed to phasing out child prisons in 2016 but hasn’t even published its strategy for doing so. It’s possible to end child imprisonment and it’s time for this to be treated with the urgency it deserves.”
- The End Child Imprisonment campaign is co-ordinated by a steering group of Article 39, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Child Rights International Network, Howard League for Penal Reform, INQUEST, Just for Kids Law, the National Association for Youth Justice, the Standing Committee for Youth Justice and leading children’s rights and child justice experts.
- Our first publication can be found here.
- Latest statistics show there were 536 children in custody in September 2020 – 90% of them in prisons (juvenile young offender institutions and secure training centres) and only 10% in secure children’s homes. Just over half (51%) the children were from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
- Ofsted’s latest report on Rainsbrook secure training centre (published 7 December) can be found here.
- Today (10 December) is Human Rights Day – the anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (in 1948).