Government publishes 70 targets to bring Feltham child prison to an acceptable level

The Ministry of Justice has today (21 August) published an action plan in response to the grave concerns about children’s safety and care raised by the Chief Inspector of Prisons last month.

On 22 July, Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector, invoked the Urgent Notification procedure whereby significant concerns about the treatment and conditions within prisons are communicated directly to the Secretary of State for Justice within seven days of an inspection.

The announced inspection of Feltham child prison took place between 4 and 19 July. The Secretary of State for Justice, Robert Buckland, has today released an action plan with 70 dated targets. Deadlines for the targets range from ‘immediate’ to ‘June 2020’.

Among the grave concerns reported by the Chief inspector to the Secretary of State were:

  • 40% of children had felt unsafe at Feltham. Nearly half reported victimisation by other children; and around two-thirds said staff had victimised them.
  • Violence is higher than in any other child prison – including verbal and physical abuse by staff.
  • Self-harm among children was 14 times higher than in 2017, and this was largely attributed to them being locked in cells for long periods of time.
  • Only a quarter of children said their (emergency) cell bell was answered within 5 minutes.
  • Over 900 use of force reports were missing: these are written accounts of restraint used on children, including the use of pain-inducing techniques.
  • Children’s perspectives were not routinely gathered after the use of restraint, so it was impossible for managers to know whether there were any child protection concerns and/or force was used lawfully.
  • The longest period a child had been separated from the ordinary prison regime was 89 days. Inspectors found the treatment and conditions of children in these situations was “very poor”. Many ‘separated’ children spent fewer than two hours out of their cells in each 24-hour period.
  • Windows did not allow adequate ventilation and less than a quarter of children were able to have a shower every day.

After the Urgent Notification was invoked, the Ministry of Justice stopped sending children to Feltham. Today’s letter from the Secretary of State to the Chief Inspector states this arrangement will continue until senior managers consider the prison to be suitable for children.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“The Chief Inspector’s letter last month set out a desperate, intolerable panoply of failures to meet basic levels of care and protection. Many of the 70 actions published by the Ministry of Justice today are rudimentary building blocks for any children’s residential setting, including the appointment of a head of safeguarding, staff training and adequate shower facilities.

“But the biggest problem is: we have been here before. And before that. Feltham has a very long and sad history of severe child suffering. Ministers should have taken the Chief Inspector’s letter as the final confirmation that the institution cannot be saved. Today’s announcement should have been bold and principled, signalling the closure of Feltham and investment in approaches and services known to turn around young lives. This document with its 70 targets is about rescuing a prison which started its life in the 1800s; if it was truly about children, it would be a closure plan.”

Read the 22 July 2019 Urgent Notification here.
Read the Secretary of State’s letter in response here.
Read HM Prison and Probation Service’s action plan here.
More information about the Urgent Notification process is here.

Government still undecided on pain-inducing restraint

The Government’s response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into solitary confinement and restraint in youth detention is published today. It shows that Ministers remain undecided about the Ministry of Justice’s policy of training custody officers to deliberately inflict pain on children – despite the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) concluding in February that the techniques are a form of child abuse which must be prohibited by law.

The Government says it will respond to the Committee’s recommendation that pain-inducing restraint be banned once it has considered the findings of a review by Charlie Taylor, which was launched in October 2018 following litigation by Article 39.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

When a public inquiry says that children are being abused as a result of government policy, it is incumbent on Ministers to take immediate action to change that policy and stop the mistreatment. We are coming up to five months since the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse recommended the prohibition of pain-inducing restraint, and we don’t even know whether Ministers want to remove these violent techniques let alone how they will go about training and supporting staff to eschew prison forms of control.

In April, the parliamentary committee urged the prohibition of pain-inducing restraint, which is part of the Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint (MMPR) system in use in juvenile young offender institutions (YOIs) and secure training centres (STCs).

MMPR is also followed by GEOAmey escort custody officers contracted to take remanded and sentenced children to and from YOIs, STCs and secure children’s homes.

Staff in secure children’s homes are prohibited from inflicting pain as a form of restraint. Pain-inducing restraint is also not permitted in health settings. At the end of last month, the Department for Education and Department for Health and Social Care published non-statutory guidance on reducing restraint and restrictive interventions in children’s health, social care and special education settings. A key principle is that:

restraint is not used to punish or with the intention of inflicting pain, suffering or humiliation

Government guidance issued 27 June 2019 in respect of children’s health, social care and special education

Carolyne Willow adds:

Government departments focused on children’s welfare and health don’t allow staff to deliberately inflict pain. There is absolutely no justification for Ministers operating a separate set of values and child protection rules for children in custody.

There has been no public call for evidence to the Charlie Taylor review. Earlier this month, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published its letter to Charlie Taylor, which states:

… pain-inducing restraint techniques are a form of child abuse, violate children’s rights and must be prohibited.

Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health letter to Charlie Taylor, 5 July 2019

Oasis Charitable Trust to run Medway secure school

Days after another child died in prison, the Ministry of Justice has announced that the Oasis Charitable Trust has been selected to run its first experimental secure school.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:

“The site chosen for the experimental secure school is a child prison beset by abuse scandals and systemic failures.

“Three years ago, BBC Panorama undercover footage showed serious emotional and physical abuse, with officers using restraint as a cover for mistreatment. In January, a serious case review reported that every local and national agency working in and with Medway secure training centre had failed to safeguard children, with a lack of proper analysis of allegations by the Local Safeguarding Children Board. A previous review found there had been 35 separate whistleblowing communications to the Youth Justice Board over a period of seven years. Ofsted found unlawful use of pain-inducing restraint when it last inspected the prison, and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse reported in February that there were 44 alleged sexual abuse incidents in the centre between 2012 and 2017. 

“When we and others wrote to the Minister to object on child protection grounds, the only specific reason he gave for choosing the site was that the Government owns the land and building and doesn’t have to go through a protracted planning permission process. The safety and welfare of very vulnerable children should govern decision-making, not the convenience of already owning a prison building. 

“Oasis Charitable Trust appears to lack any experience of looking after children in a residential setting. There are inevitable parallels with G4S and Serco being handed contracts to run secure training centres in the late 1990s without any relevant experience. Secure training centres were similarly marketed as centres of excellence in children’s education and care. Nothing I have seen or heard shows that the Government has properly reflected on why children suffered so badly for so long in those institutions. There has been no explanation either as to why the law has been changed to allow 16-19 academies to become secure children’s homes, when additional investment in the best of existing provision would have been the most obvious and safer path to take.”

Another child dies in prison

The BBC has reported that a 16 year-old boy, Caden Steward, died in Cookham Wood young offender institution in Kent on Thursday 27 June. His death is not believed to have been self-inflicted, and is said not to be suspicious.

This is the third child to die in Cookham Wood YOI since 2012. An investigation by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman will take place.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:

“This is desperately sad news. No child should ever come to the end of their life in prison. The prison service has apparently said the boy’s death is not suspicious. But we should all question and distrust the morality of keeping very vulnerable children in these unsafe and archaic institutions.”

Two days before the boy’s death, a debate was held in Parliament on closing child prisons, led by Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck. The Minister, Edward Argar, refused to give a timetable for the closure of child prisons, even though the Government agreed two and a half years ago that they would be phased out. In 2016, the Youth Justice Board admitted that young offender institutions and secure training centres are not fit for the purpose of keeping children safe or rehabilitation.

35 children have died in young offender institutions and secure training centres since 1990, the year the UK signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The treaty requires that children are only ever detained as a last resort and for the shortest period possible.

Article 39 is running a national ‘End Child Imprisonment’ campaign with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, the Howard League for Penal Reform, INQUEST, Just for Kids Law, National Association for Youth Justice and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice. Read more about the campaign here.

Advocacy services for children and young people must be strengthened – Children’s Commissioner

The Children’s Commissioner has today (13 June) published her review of independent advocacy services in England. This shows that 29% of local authorities do not know how advocacy services are provided to children in respect of health complaints – despite them having a legal duty to make such arrangements since 2012. Nine local authorities were unable to say what advocacy arrangements are in place for social care complaints, even though this has been a statutory duty for 30 years.

A survey of managers of advocacy services found majority support (68%) for moving towards ‘one-stop’, local advocacy services – working across services and systems.

Advocacy services provide independent information and help to ensure children and young people are heard and their rights protected. The first service was set up by Leicestershire County Council in 1987. This was for children in care and care leavers. Now local authorities have myriad duties to arrange for independent advocacy for children and young people, including:

  • When they receive (or are entitled to) social care services
  • When they wish to make a complaint about a health service
  • When they are detained in a mental health unit
  • Young people who are homeless
  • Children who run away or go missing.

Independent advocates also visit and help children in young offender institutions and secure training centres, though there is no statutory duty for this. Many children’s homes and mental health hospitals have ‘visiting advocates’ who regularly spend time with children, gaining their trust and being there to help them be heard as individuals or collectively.

The Children’s Commissioner makes 10 recommendations for strengthening and improving children and young people’s advocacy, including a consolidation of the law so that entitlements to advocacy are clear and the revision of national standards (statutory guidance). She urges advocacy providers to publish an ‘independence statement’ which sets out to children and young people how the advocacy service is separate from health, social care and other services. Continuing revelations of human rights abuses in prisons and mental health units underline the importance of advocates being able to act robustly and independently for children.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, was a member of the Commissioner’s working group for this review. She said:

“Advocates are vitally important for children and young people living in institutional settings, whether this be children’s homes, mental health units or prisons. They give strength and power to children’s voices and make sure their rights are upheld. For a child who feels alone and unheard, having a person who respects them and takes the time to listen – and makes others listen – can be truly revolutionary.

Advocates are also a lifeline for young people struggling in the community trying to access support and services.

We hope the government, local authorities and advocacy providers will quickly accept and implement the Commissioner’s important recommendations. As we celebrate 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child this year, this report shows how to practically implement the treaty’s obligations. Advocates empower children who are often in extremely powerless situations; they are not an optional extra but a crucial mechanism for making sure all children enjoy their rights.

Article 39’s work with the Children’s Commissioner was instigated by the late John Kemmis, a brilliant champion for children and young people’s rights and advocacy services. We pay tribute to him.

The Commissioner’s report and recommendations can be found here.