Child’s solitary confinement reviewed by the Court of Appeal

By agency reporter
January 19, 2019

A boy, identified in court documents as AB, was routinely locked alone in his cell in Feltham prison, in west London, for 23 hours a day. This continued for 55 days, during which he received no education.  He was 15 years old at the time.

In 2017 the High Court ruled that his treatment was contrary to human rights law because the prison had not followed the correct procedures.

On 18 January 2019 the Court of Appeal approved that decision and clarified that when any person in prison is banned from association with others, the prison must justify that it is necessary and proportionate.

AB is represented by the legal team of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The reasons the case was considered by the Court of Appeal was because AB challenged the High Court’s decision that keeping him in isolation for more than 23 hours a day was degrading and inhuman treatment and therefore incapable of being justified. At the same time government lawyers argued that a decision to isolate a person does not need to be justified at all in order to be compliant with human rights law.

The Court of Appeal rejected both arguments.  It agreed with the High Court that the way AB was treated for those 55 days was not inhuman and degrading or a breach of his right to personal development.  The Court of Appeal rejected the argument that being prevented from associating with other people is not governed by human rights law.  There can be no doubt now that decisions to isolate people in prison must be necessary and proportionate if they are to be lawful. AB will now be advised on whether or not to appeal.

The judgment comes at a time of growing concern about the use of solitary confinement, with medical professionals and children’s rights experts calling for change.

In April 2018, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health issued a joint position statement calling for the solitary confinement of children and young people to be abolished and prohibited.

The three medical bodies said: “In light of its potential to cause harm, and in the absence of compelling evidence for its use, we call for an end to the use of solitary confinement on children and young people detained in the youth justice system.”

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has begun an inquiry into solitary confinement and restraint of children in secure settings. A statement on the UK Parliament website, outlining the scope of the inquiry, reads: “Serious concerns have been raised about the conditions and treatment of children in detention. These include the use of restraint, which still includes techniques which involve deliberately inflicting pain, and solitary confinement, which can increase risk of self-harm and long term developmental and psychiatric problems.”

Last month, a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, raised serious concerns about the use of segregation and isolation of children in secure penal settings.

The UK is out of step with a growing international consensus that children should never be placed in solitary confinement.

In the US, the District Court for New York granted an injunction requiring the immediate cessation of 23-hour solitary confinement of children. The court referred to expert evidence that “solitary confinement perpetuates, worsens, or even in some cases precipitates mental health concerns that can lead to long-term and often permanent changes in adolescent brain development”.

In April 2017, a report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture stated that children in Cookham Wood prison in Kent, were “regularly held in conditions akin to solitary confinement for periods of 30 days and some for as long as 60 days or even, on occasion, up to 80 days for reasons of discipline and good order”.

In a ruling delivered in 2015, the Supreme Court held that there are “well known” risks of solitary confinement and that prolonged solitary confinement – defined as being held in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days – is particularly harmful.

The Supreme Court cited expert evidence that the prolonged solitary confinement of adults can have an “extremely damaging effect on … mental, somatic and social health” and “some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible”.

* Howard League for Penal Reform


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