Children’s prisons in England should be closed, a coalition of charities have urged.
The coalition including 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, state that children’s prisons are inflicting irrevocable harm on highly vulnerable children, which has been exacerbated significantly by the response to COVID-19.
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.”
The End Child Imprisonment campaign is co-ordinated by a steering group of charities and their report 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.
It states that while the government committed to phasing out child prisons in 2016, 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. However, 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.
Fifteen secure children’s homes have been closed since 2003, but had this capacity not been lost, ministers could have quickly delivered on their 2016 promise by transferring children who cannot live safely in the community to these establishments and supporting other children at home.
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,” she added.
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 support for children and families.
The call comes days after the publication of a scathing inspection report into Rainsbrook secure training centre in Northamptonshire whereby inspectors found that children are put into solitary confinement for their first two weeks, and kept in their cells for 23.5 hours a day. There were 43 children held in Rainsbrook at the time of inspection and the STC holds children from age 12 years.
Just for Kids Law Interim CEO Frances Mapstone concluded: “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.”
The case for ending child imprisonment