The UK government’s policy of allowing children in detention in England and Wales to be locked alone in their cells for up to 23 hours a day under emergency Covid-19 measures is “extreme and inhumane” and could lead to lifelong mental health damage, according to the UN special rapporteur on torture and leading child health experts.
Since March, facilities have been able to keep children as young as 12 confined alone in their cells for all but around 40 minutes a day. The measures, which were put in place to stop potential Covid-19 outbreaks, affect around 500 under 18-year-olds in youth detention and another 4,000 18-21-year-olds held in adult prisons.
Prof Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, told the Guardian that solitary confinement is so damaging to children that it should never have been seen as a reasonable response to the threat of Covid-19 infections.
“[Solitary confinement] is a more extreme measure with children than it is with adults. If it exceeds two weeks it would amount to cruel and inhuman treatment,” he said.
“Its use should be exceptional and in most cases there should be different measures to stop the spread of Covid. These kinds of stress factors are likely to affect this young generation for decades to come. If they spend a year like this it could affect their whole life.”
In response, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said that children in custody are now spending on average four hours each day out of their cells, with plans for that to increase. But lawyers have told the Guardian that some children and young people are still being regularly locked up for 22 hours a day. The situation worsens when staff are sick or have to isolate, they said.
“I haven’t spoken to any children in prisons in recent weeks who are getting out for more than two hours a day every single day,” said Laura Janes, head of legal at the Howard League, which runs a helpline for children and young people in custody. “I speak to child after child, they sound so tired of doing nothing, I can hear the lethargy. Time is losing its meaning for them,” she said.
Sean* was 15 when he was remanded into custody at a secure training centre (STC), a setting designed to give teenagers a rehabilitative programme of education and vocational training, with family visits. However, when he arrived he was immediately confined alone to his cell. After three weeks, Sean says he felt that his mind was starting to unravel.
“The first three to four months it was 23 hours a day in my cell. You get taken for a walk to get some air but you don’t talk to anybody but the guard. It started to really affect me,” he said.
Dr Alison Steele is a consultant paediatrician and officer for child protection at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), which alongside the British Medical Association, has called for an end to the solitary confinement of children in detention.
“It is very clear that solitary confinement is harmful to children and young people,” she said. “It damages their health and increases the risk of self-harm and suicide.” In early 2020, before the pandemic, the chief inspector of prisons, Peter Clarke, warned children in custody were being kept in segregation for very long periods.
There are also fears for the thousands of teenagers detained in adult prisons who are being kept in isolation in their cells. Last week, Clarke also warned that the Covid-19 restrictions currently in place at adult prisons across the country risked doing “irreparable damage to the mental health of a lot of prisoners”.
Caroline Liggins, head of the youth team at Hodge Jones & Allen solicitors, said she is gravely concerned for the mental health of many of her teenage clients detained in adult prisons.
“They just sit there with their mental health deteriorating, no education, no family visits. In Wormwood Scrubs there was a total lockdown. One 18-year-old there tested positive for Covid in the past week and received no medical treatment. He was just left locked in his cell,” Liggins said.
One of her clients, who is 21, said: “During the lockdown we were only let out every other day for 30 mins. They wouldn’t allow us to take any books out of the library and all family meetings were stopped. All meetings with lawyers were delayed. This had effects on everyone’s cases as they all got pushed back. It was inhumane, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
Despite saying that Covid-19 restrictions were being lifted in youth detention facilities, in July the MoJ extended the rules allowing young offender institutions (YOIs) and STCs to keep children in their cells until March 2022. The MoJ said the legislation would only be used if needed to ensure that any new Covid outbreaks could be swiftly contained.
Campaigners and lawyers acknowledge that lockdown was a difficult situation for prison management. One group that works with young people in prisons, Kinetic Youth, said they had been supported by individual governors to run face to face projects throughout the lockdown.
The MoJ said in response: “Young people spend at least four hours a day engaging in out of room activities, and we are looking to increase this when it is safe to do so. They also take part in meaningful activity when they are in their room – including increased access to video calls with family and support services.
YOIs and STCs began face to face visits in July but the MoJ said there would be regional variations in delivery.
As the prisoners spoken to by the Guardian wanted to remain anonymous the spokesman said the ministry could not investigate the individual cases.
• This article was amended on 27 October 2020. An earlier version incorrectly referred to confinement being a “UK policy”, when in fact the policy applies only in England and Wales.
*Name changed to protect anonymity