Inspectors find extreme lock-up in institutions holding children in England 'avoidable and troubling'

By agency reporter
July 28, 2020

Inspectors from HM Inspectorate of Prisons were concerned that most children in two young offender institutions (YOIs) in England were still locked up for most of the day after four months of COVID-19 restrictions. They found that local management attempts at HYOI Feltham A and HMYOI Werrington to reintroduce education classes were blocked by the prison service and national staff associations.

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, said both YOIs had taken swift action in late March, when COVID-19 restrictions were first introduced. “Managers had communicated well with both staff and children and it was positive that formal consultation groups had been reinstated at both sites.”

However, the report noted: “Children at both sites told us they initially understood and largely accepted the need for the restrictions, but after 15 weeks of being locked up for more than 22 hours a day some were understandably frustrated about the slow progress in implementing activity, particularly as they saw restrictions easing in the community.” Children spent most of their day sleeping, watching TV or playing computer games.

Mr Clarke said: “As was the case when we last visited (three different) YOIs in April, our main concern during these visits was the extremely limited amount of time out of cell for all children. The primary cause of this was the decision to stop face-to-face education.

“As a consequence, nearly all children had been locked up for more than 22 hours every day since the start of the restrictions, which had been imposed some 15 weeks before our visit. This was both disproportionate and avoidable.

“The Government’s guidance is that children who are deemed vulnerable should continue to attend education. Children held in custody meet this definition, meaning education should have continued once the required safety measures had been put in place. Governors at both sites wanted to provide education and had, months before our visits, prepared plans that would have enabled it to be delivered. These plans were stopped by HMPPS and national staff associations.”

Mr Clarke added that the lack of face-to-face education in YOIs run by the Youth Custody Service, part of the prison service and Ministry of Justice, was in “stark contrast” to the provision at other establishments holding children, delivered by other providers.

“After an initial suspension to put health and safety measures in place, every YOI, secure training centre and secure children’s home managed by private or local authority providers has been able to deliver face-to-face education throughout the pandemic.”

At Feltham and Werrington, managers and staff were aware of the potentially negative impact of children spending so much time alone in their cells and the effects of such a restricted regime. Managers had been creative, within the substantial constraints placed on them, seconding prison staff to increase the youth work provision and introducing limited opportunities for children to eat communally (at Feltham). Enhanced welfare checks were carried out by a range of agencies at both sites. The YOIs appeared calm and well ordered, and recorded self-harm had reduced since the start of the pandemic.”

The suspension of visits by family and friends impacted many children at Feltham and Werrington. The rollout of Purple Visits (a secure video calling service) to both establishments in June was positive and managers were working to improve take up and establish ways to use spare capacity. Additional phone credit and letters were also given to children at both sites.

Both establishments worked hard to ensure that all children had accommodation on release and were met at the gate by a suitable adult. However, inspectors were concerned to see that in two cases at Feltham difficulties in finding someone to take a child home delayed their release. In the most serious case a lack of engagement by a local authority led to a child being held overnight in custody, despite being bailed.

Overall, Mr Clarke said: “This report outlines positive work by local governors and their staff who acted quickly to keep children safe, delivered a consistent regime and implemented additional safeguards when needed for the children in their care. However, progress in implementing activity has been far too slow nationally. HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) national guidance has taken little account of the specific needs of children, and this has resulted in children at Feltham A and Werrington being locked up for 22 hours a day for nearly four months.”

* Read the report on short scrutiny visits to young offender institutions holding children here

* HM Inspectorate of Prisons https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprisons/

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