United call for the immediate closure of harmful child prisons and proposals for positive care

Child prisons are failing institutions causing devastating harm to vulnerable children and should be closed immediately. A coalition of organisations and independent experts is today (18 April) launching a completely different approach with the publication of a set of principles and minimum expectations for reducing the number of children locked up and making sure secure care is effective and safe.

The document provides a positive framework for addressing harmful behaviour and meeting children’s needs outside of prison. This requires skilled, multi-disciplinary teams working in small establishments close to children’s communities. Wherever possible, children should attend education and other facilities in their local area even when they are being looked after in a secure setting. Families and professionals who know children well should be fully involved in their care.

Drawing upon the best available national and international evidence, the document shows how to properly look after children while stopping their harmful behaviour. It comes two months after the country’s largest public inquiry found appalling mistreatment in child prisons.

Only children who present a serious risk to themselves or others should ever be deprived of their liberty, the coalition says. Deprivation of liberty should be for the shortest period of time, and punishment and deterrence must play no part in decision-making. The principles and minimum expectations also apply to children who may arrive in a secure setting through mental health or child welfare routes.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39 Director, said:

“The Government announced more than two years ago that it would phase out child prisons. Since then children have continued to suffer terribly in institutions which are incapable of meeting their needs and cyclically produce regimes of abuse, neglect and pervasive violence. It’s time for Ministers and opposition parties to treat this as an urgent matter of child protection and to commit to moving on from a penal system built in the Victorian age as an alternative to capital punishment and banishment to the colonies. No other area of policy concerned with children is so wedded to the distant past.”

Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said:

“Imprisonment of children is unethical, harmful and perpetuates a system that punishes some of the most vulnerable in our society.

“We need to work towards ending child imprisonment. Given that imprisonment is an ongoing lived reality for many hundreds of children, it is also vital that the government takes steps, in the here-and-now, to reduce the harms of imprisonment and ensure that imprisoned children are treated with compassion, dignity and respect.”

Frances Crook, Chief Executive, Howard League for Penal Reform, said:

“It is a stain on the very fabric of the nation that we send children into prisons. Prisons damage already damaged children. It is time to put children first and make sure that every single child is nurtured and supported to grow into a law-abiding citizen.”

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said:

“The deaths of children in prison are not a distant memory, but an unacceptable and recent reality. Deaths are the starkest demonstration of the damage caused by child imprisonment, and the culture of violence, use of force, self-harm, fear and neglect. Children need and deserve to be supported and nurtured. Child prisons must close. The focus of any government with children’s interests in mind must be investment in and expansion of community support services, not detention and criminal justice systems.”

Enver Solomon, CEO of Just for Kids Law, said:

“Child prisons are costly, failing institutions that are violent, unsafe and ineffective – sweeping vulnerable children and young people into a world of further crime from which it is impossible to escape.  We need to think again and create alternatives that guide children to safer more stable shores and improve public safety for us all.”

Ross Little, Chair of the National Association for Youth Justice, said:

“Prisons for children have been shown to be expensive ways of making vulnerability, disadvantage and harmful behaviour worse. It really is time for government to change its approach to how we deal with complex issues for some of the most challenged and challenging children in our society. We can do better than this.”

Pippa Goodfellow, Director of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, said:

“This week is the anniversary of the horrific death of 15-year-old Gareth Myatt at Rainsbrook secure training centre. As we mark the loss of his young life fifteen years later, this should serve as a pressing reminder of the need to protect the hundreds of children locked up in child prisons today. In 2017 the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned that the state of youth custody was in crisis and so dangerous that tragedy was “inevitable”. Now is the time to take the necessary and urgent action to close these harmful and failing institutions.” 

Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England between 2010 and 2015, said:

“The incarceration of children and young people is at best unproductive and at worst qualifies as cruel and inhumane treatment. It often scars the children and young people involved still more deeply than whatever has happened to them that made them offend. 

“A modern society should seek to change the lives of children in conflict with the law robustly and with care. We have to reach a place where there is no need to lock them away, especially given our tendency to release them both unrehabilitated and more likely to reoffend. Finding the political and social will to do what’s right for children and wider society is an urgent necessity.”

Professor Barry Goldson, University of Liverpool and member of the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty Expert Advisory Board, said:

“The international evidence base is compelling. Child imprisonment is typically: dangerous and damaging for young prisoners; spectacularly ineffective in terms of obtaining crime reduction and community safety; often unnecessary; wasteful of public money and utterly inadequate. There is an urgent and pressing need to seek replacement strategies that meet children’s needs and serve the public interest to positive effect.”


1.    ‘Principles and minimum expectation for children deprived of their liberty’ is published by the End Child Imprisonment campaign steering group. It can be downloaded here.

2.    The End Child Imprisonment campaign was launched in November 2018. It is run by a campaign steering group of Article 39, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Howard League for Penal Reform, INQUEST, Just for Kids Law, the National Association for Youth Justice and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, as well as leading experts in children’s rights, the care of children and juvenile justice, including former Children’s Commissioner for England Maggie Atkinson; Dr Tim Bateman, University of Bedfordshire; Professor Barry Goldson, University of Liverpool and member of the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty Expert Advisory Board; Dr Di Hart, Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow (children’s secure care); Pam Hibbert OBE, youth justice specialist and a former manager of a secure children’s home; and Dr David Scott, Open University.  

3.    In February 2019, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse published its investigation into children’s custodial institutions. It found there had been 1,070 sexual abuse allegations between 2009 and 2017. This included 36 allegations of rape or attempted rape in young offender institutions and secure training centres over that period. Physical violence and children feeling unsafe in custody were commonplace, and appeared to be rising.

4.    Individuals and organisations can support the End Child Imprisonment campaign here.

5.    Fifteen years ago, Gareth Myatt, aged 15 and weighing just 6½ stone and less than five feet tall, was fatally restrained in Rainsbrook secure training centre. 34 children have died in young offender institutions and secure training centres since 1990, the year the UK signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and pledged to use custody as a last resort and for the shortest period possible. The most recent child deaths in prison were Daniel Adewole (aged 16) and Alex Kelly (aged 15). Daniel was found unresponsive in his cell in Cookham Wood young offender institution following an epileptic fit in 2015. The prison had cancelled his paediatric neurology hospital appointment a few weeks before, because he and his parents knew the date – which was said to breach prison security rules. Alex Kelly was found hanging in his cell in Cookham Wood in 2012; he had been in care since the age of five and was known to be extremely vulnerable. The night Alex was found hanging he had told a prison officer about the sexual abuse he suffered as a very young child.

6.    In December 2016, Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system in England and Wales was published. The Government’s response, published at the same time, said in respect of child prisons: “The Taylor Review proposes that YOIs and STCs should be replaced in the longer term by smaller secure schools situated in the regions that they serve. These should be set up, run, governed and inspected as schools, drawing on the expertise and experience of outstanding alternative provision schools (which provide education for children and young people who are unable to go to mainstream schools) and have greater freedoms for their head teachers to recruit staff and commission services… We agree with this vision…”. Charlie Taylor became Chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales in March 2017.

End child imprisonment

A joint campaign to end child imprisonment – run by a steering group of Article 39, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Howard League for Penal Reform, INQUEST, Just for Kids Law, the National Association for Youth Justice and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice with leading independent experts – launches a week of action today.

We begin with a new mini-documentary produced by The Open University and will launch a joint publication at the end of the week.

The week of action is timed to mark the 15th anniversary of the death of Gareth Myatt. It follows February’s report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The inquiry’s Chair Alexis Jay said she is “deeply disturbed by the continuing problem of child sexual abuse in these institutions over the last decade. It is clear these children, who are some of the most vulnerable in society, are still at risk of sexual abuse.

Gareth Myatt loved riding his bike and watching South Park and the Simpsons. He was academically very able and his favourite game was chess.

Fifteen years ago, on 19 April 2004, Gareth Myatt was fatally restrained by three officers in Rainsbrook secure training centre in Northamptonshire. Gareth was aged 15; he weighed just 6½ stone and stood less than five feet tall.


The Department for Education has withdrawn a controversial document about council duties to vulnerable children and young people, after Article 39 launched an application for judicial review.

The so-called ‘myth busting’ guide advised local authorities that they are legally permitted to reduce and remove support from children in long-term foster care, children who run away or go missing from home or care, children who are remanded to custody and young people who have left care and are still living with their former foster carers. 

Children’s Minister Nadhim Zahawi claimed the document simply clarified council duties, but Article 39 and 49 other charities and social work experts warned last September it contained numerous inaccuracies and risked vulnerable children and care leavers losing vital support. 

After correspondence with the Minister failed to elicit any agreement to correct the errors, or even a meeting to discuss our collective concerns, Article 39 instructed lawyers to begin legal proceedings.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“It’s deeply disappointing that the Children’s Minister didn’t respond to our serious concerns months ago but what matters is that the document has now been withdrawn and the risks to children and young people minimised. We are relieved and delighted that children’s rights have prevailed.

“There is of course the possibility that social workers and local authority managers have already used the guide and we hope that councils will quickly review and rectify any removal or reduction of support.”   

As well as deleting it from the children’s social care innovation programme’s website, the Department for Education has committed to notify local authorities and others that the document has been withdrawn. It has also confirmed that any plans to issue a similar document in the future will follow a consultation process that includes Article 39, relevant organisations and children and young people who may be directly affected.

Oliver Studdert, solicitor at Simpson Millar, representing Article 39, said:

“It is absolutely right that this guide has been withdrawn. It is unfortunate that it has taken the issuing of court proceedings to achieve this, but it is reassuring that the Secretary of State has now acknowledged the concerns of Article 39 and other charities and experts concerning the removal of vital statutory safeguards for vulnerable children and care leavers.”


1.       As a very small charity, Article 39 was only able to take legal action to protect the rights of vulnerable children through pledges of financial support from organisations and individuals, including the British Association of Social Workers, The Centre for Outcomes of Care, Cherry Cottage Ltd, MAC-UK, Napo (Family Court Section), National Association for Youth Justice, National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, NSPCC and the Social Workers Union.

2.       The 50 organisations and social work experts who wrote to the Children’s Minister last September, urging him to withdraw the inaccurate parts of the document, were: The Aire Centre; Article 39; Association of Independent Visitors and Consultants to Child Care Services; Association of Lawyers for Children; Association of Professors of Social Work; Association of Youth Offending Team Managers; Become; British Association of Social Workers England; The Care Leavers’ Association; Children England; Child Rights International Network; Coram Children’s Legal Centre; Coram Voice; ECPAT UK; Family Action; The Fostering Network; Howard League for Penal Reform; Independent Children’s Homes Association; Just for Kids Law; The MAC Project (Central England Law Centre and the Astraea Project); Nagalro, Professional Association of Children’s Guardians, Family Court Advisers and Independent Social Workers; National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC); National Association for Youth Justice; National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers; National IRO Managers Partnership; NYAS (National Youth Advocacy Service); Parents Of Traumatised Adopted Teens Organisation (The Potato Group); Refugee Council; Social Workers Union; Social Workers Without Borders; Southwark Law Centre; UNISON; Dr Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England 2010-2015; Sir Al Aynsley-Green, first Children’s Commissioner for England 2005-10; Wendy Bannerman, Director of Right Resolution CIC; Jay Barlow, Napo National Vice-Chair; Liz Davies Emeritus Professor of Social Work, London Metropolitan University; Anna Gupta, Professor of Social Work, Royal Holloway University of London; Pam Hibbert OBE; Ray Jones, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London; John Kemmis, former Chief Executive Voice, NAIRO Patron and Article 39 Expert Panel member; Dr Mark Kerr, Managing Partner, The Centre for Outcomes of Care; Jenny Molloy, Author, Adviser and Trainer; David Palmer, Lecturer in Criminal Justice Services, University of Northampton; Peter Saunders, Founder NAPAC; Mike Stein, Emeritus Professor, University of York; June Thoburn CBE, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, University of East Anglia; Dr Nigel Thomas, Professor Emeritus of Childhood and Youth, University of Central Lancashire; Judith Timms OBE, Founder and Trustee of the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) and a Vice President of the Family Mediators Association; and Jane Tunstill, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Royal Holloway, London University.

3.       Article 39 is represented by Oliver Studdert, Partner in Public Law and Eleanor Gauld at Simpson Millar, and Steve Broach and Khatija Hafesji from Monckton Chambers.

4.       Our application was made to the High Court on 18 February 2019.

Hospital restraint probe reveals lack of basic safeguards

Following the suspension of 20 members of staff from the Westwood Centre at West Lane Hospital in Middlesbrough, Article 39 submitted a freedom of information request to gain details of restraint techniques authorised for use on children there. The staff were suspended after using unauthorised restraint methods.

The FOI response from Tees Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust reveals an alarming lack of accountability, reporting and sparse information sharing with child patients and their parents/carers.

Westwood Centre cares for just 12 children at a time. Our FOI request reveals that:

  • In 2013/14 two formal complaints were made by children and young people and/or their parents;
  • This rose to 10 complaints in 2017/18; and
  • Eight complaints have been lodged from 2018 to date.

No written information was given to us about approved restraint techniques, and in the FOI response the Trust said no information is provided to children and parents.

The Mental Health Act 1983 grants children detained in the Westwood Centre the right to an independent mental health advocate when they make a complaint.

However, we’ve been told no child received assistance from an independent advocate when making a complaint between 2013/14 and 2016/17.

In 2017/18 only two children received support (when 10 had made complaints). Similarly, just two of eight complainants have received help from an advocate from 2018 to date.

Helen Donohoe, Article 39’s Assistant Director, said:

“A child or young person’s right to an independent advocate in settings such as the Westwood Unit is an essential safeguard against poor and dangerous practice, including the use of excessive restraint. We are alarmed that so many complaints could occur without children and young people receiving assistance from independent advocates, to make sure they are heard and their rights upheld. We are seeking assurance that the current investigation will address that now, and for future practice.”

The CQC inspected the NHS Foundation Trust in 2018 and found that:

The trust had made improvements since the last inspection as continued to monitor the use of restraint on Newberry and Westwood wards. The numbers of restraint on both wards have increased which management attributed to the acuity of patients. However, in 2015 prone restraint was 25% and 50% of total restraints on the respective wards however this had reduced significantly to the current figures of 3% and 6% of all restraints on these wards. Staff understood that the use of restraint was a last resort. They used de-escalation and low levels of restraint to manage incidents of aggression wherever possible. Staff ensured they documented episodes of restraint, and rapid tranquilisation in accordance with trust policy.

Extract from CQC inspection report, 2018

Article 39 is now seeking further information, including:

  • What was done in the five years before the staff suspensions to address the rise in complaints.
  • What restraint methods were approved for use on children, and why is information about authorised techniques not given to children and their parents.
  • Why is there a seemingly low use of independent advocates? Has material been produced especially for children about their right to an independent advocate? Who is responsible for making sure children and young people detained in the Centre are heard and their rights upheld?
  • How the perspectives of children and young people and their parents were considered during the CQC inspection in 2018; and how they they will be included in the current investigation.

Medway child prison will be site of experimental secure school, despite history of failure to protect children

Last month, Article 39 and 35 others wrote jointly to the Ministers responsible for child protection and child prisons urging them to abandon plans to open an experimental secure school on the site of Medway secure training centre.

A serious case review showed substantial failure both within the institution, and among local and national agencies, to keep children safe. This was followed by an inspection report, published on 29 January 2019, which revealed children had been recently unlawfully inflicted with pain as a form of restraint. The secure training centre transferred from G4S to Ministry of Justice management in July 2016.

We received a letter this week – see below – from Edward Argar MP, responsible for child prisons. He said he was also replying on behalf of Nadhim Zahawi MP, whose Ministerial portfolio includes child protection and safeguarding vulnerable children.

Given our joint letter was wholly about the safety and welfare of very vulnerable children, many of them in the care system, it is very disappointing that Minister Zahawi did not, at the very least, countersign the letter.

But the most astonishing part of the response is the Government’s explanation for using Medway secure training centre as its first experimental secure school:

“Medway STC stood out for several reasons – including location, our ownership of the site and the absence of any need to go through a potentially protracted and expensive planning application.”

Edward Argar MP, Youth Justice Minister

On location, official data published by the Ministry of Justice shows 58 children from the South East region of England were detained in December 2018. However, 228 children were detained within the region – meaning that 170 children were from outside the area. Over a quarter (27%) of children in custody are sent to the South East region. The Government’s own data therefore shows that extra provision is not required in this location.

Moreover, one of the documents produced by the Ministry of Justice to encourage companies to apply to run the first experimental secure school notes that there are no secure settings in England’s Eastern region – yet 77 children from that area are detained, according to latest figures.

That the Ministry of Justice owns the prison site has no credibility as a reason for choosing it as the place to pilot an institution meant to be completely different from existing child prisons.

There is a very long history of the prison service’s ownership of land, as opposed to children’s needs, determining where institutions are built. The location of Medway secure training centre itself was selected in the late 1990s because the prison service ran the nearby Cookham Wood young offender institution and Rochester prison.

Prior to its opening in 1998, Medway secure training centre was known as Cookham Wood secure training centre – showing its links to the adjacent prison. Its other neighbouring prison, Rochester, was once called Borstal prison, and was the site of the first ever experimental child prison – which opened in 1902.

Similarly, the Government’s avoidance of having to “go through a potentially protracted and expensive planning application” makes no sense if Ministers genuinely want to abandon penal institutions for children. Whenever a local authority or health body wishes to open a new residential service, for children or adults, they must go through the planning process.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, said:

“The Minister’s response signals his department continues to be trapped in a cycle of failure with the perpetual remodelling of child prisons. The first experiment in child prisons started in the same geographical location as the planned secure school. That was 117 years ago.

“If Ministers are truly behind replacing young offender institutions and secure training centres, they must surrender their dependence on prison land and prison property.

“And if they genuinely want secure schools to be secure children’s homes, as their promotional literature says, then why not build upon and develop the best of existing provision run by local authorities as part of their wider services to children and families?”

The Minister’s letter can be read here.
Our joint letter to the minister can be read here.

In December 2016, the Government announced it shares the long-term vision of Charlie Taylor (Chair of Youth Justice Board) to replace juvenile young offender institutions and secure training centres with secure schools.