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"Like a dog in a kennel": Lockdown in child prisons revealed

Left alone for days, denied education and refused visitation rights for years: pandemic lockdowns revealed so many flaws in young offenders institutions that experts are calling for entire system to be rethought. 

June 29 2024, 13.18pm

Children imprisoned in young offenders’ institutions and care facilities during the COVID pandemic lockdowns were left entirely alone for up to 23 hours a day, with devastating effects on their mental health - according to a new academic study seen by The Lead.

The research found children had faced recurrent periods of complete isolation, were refused all visitation rights for up to two years, had their access to education reduced or removed and were offered limited time to exercise outside. They also had reduced access to psychological support services when they were most needed. 

Speaking to The Lead, former youth inmate Paul* – who was 23 and a young adult at the time of his arrival in prison just four months before the pandemic broke out – said he experienced the same treatment as the child prisoners interviewed in the report. “Once the pandemic hit we were 23 hours a day in our cell, it was just crazy. We had to be in a cell for three or four days without showering.” he said. 

“When I first came [to prison] I had about three family visits, once or twice a month, and then the pandemic hit. Then I couldn’t see them. Some people lost their family members in prison and they weren’t allowed to go to the funerals.”

Paul, who is now being supported by the charity Switchback, said the impact on his mental health was profound. “When you’re in that environment mentally, when you’re in a cell for 23 hours it's hard to concentrate on something positive,” he said. The restrictions did not protect him: Paul caught COVID three times while incarcerated.

Vulnerable minors entering custody during lockdown were isolated from staff and other residents for 10-day stretches in an attempt to control infection rates, with very limited access even to prison staff members. 

“Some children experienced multiple periods of isolation because of contact with staff who tested positive for COVID,” the review, carried out by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University, found. Staff shortages due to sickness and recruitment issues often meant children spent entire weekends locked up. 

Classes replaced with crosswords pushed under doors   

Children told researchers how having a 15-minute window for a shower each day felt like being a “dog in a kennel”. Others reported how formal education was replaced with packs of exercises, which were often little more than crossword puzzles, pushed under the door of their locked room with no other support. One inmate said: “I couldn’t wait for us to get back to normal education because it really affected me because we weren’t with the actual education staff. It was a pain because I just wanted to learn.”

As lockdown restrictions eased, little changed for incarcerated children. Even two years into the pandemic, the time children spent out of their cells or secure bedrooms had not increased to pre-pandemic levels, academics found. 

 “The way children in custody were being treated should have been a national outcry.

The study concluded: “The conditions in which children are kept in custody are dire and poor conditions that pre-existed COVID such as a lack of time out of cell, safety concerns, increases in violence and limited education provision have been exacerbated by the pandemic.” 

It added that the pandemic had “eradicated children’s rights and exposed children to increased vulnerabilities” in the secure prison estate and the facts presented an “urgent need for a fundamental ideological reconsideration of the purpose of custody for children.”

The number of child offenders in custody is now at the lowest recorded levels, but there were still around 440 incarcerated children at any one time during 2023. Black children are overrepresented in custody, accounting for more than a quarter (26%) of the youth custody population, compared with 6% of children aged 10 to 17 nationally. However, the number of Black children in custody also decreased by 9% compared to the year ending March 2022, the largest decrease of any ethnicity.

Academic Hannah Smithson, professor of criminology and youth justice at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-author of the paper, said the situation for children in prison during the lockdowns had been “absolutely dire” because of a failure to separate out the needs of child prisoners from the adult prison estate. “The way children in custody were being treated should have been a national outcry. Within the machinations of Westminster, people knew this was happening and the vast majority were concerned by it but it did still continue,” she said. 

Smithson described how prison officers, themselves suffering from low morale and struggling with staff shortages, ran a “punitive system” which did not focus on the welfare of children who are already vulnerable and traumatised. The lack of psychological support was particularly troubling to those working in youth justice. “While the service was scaled back they had never seen a mental health crisis like it among children who were being referred, but then not receiving any help.”

Custody "not safe for girls and young women"

According to Smithson, even four years on, children in custody are still not receiving the level of education they were offered before the pandemic. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it’s four years on and things haven’t improved – they’ve got a whole lot worse,” she said. 

For girls in custody – a small number of the youth offending population, but a more vulnerable cohort – the effects of the pandemic have been particularly damaging. Indy Cross, chief executive of Agenda Alliance, a charity which works with young women in the criminal justice system said the report demonstrated what her charity already argued: that custody is not safe for girls and young women.

“It’s important to remember these are, ultimately, children, and prison sees them almost entirely isolated from vital support systems. Their mental health worsened during long periods where they had nothing meaningful to do, demonstrated by the shocking levels of self-harm among this age group.” Like the academics, Cross urged the creation of new alternatives to custody for children. 

The study concluded that the treatment of young offenders during the pandemic was so damaging that it should spark a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system, calling for policymakers to withdraw investment in custodial sentencing for children. Given the significant harm to child offenders’ wellbeing, the authors argued for a new approach “underpinned by the upholding of children’s rights” and reminded governments of the UN Convention on the Rights of Children which “maintains that the imprisonment of children should only be used as a measure of last resort”.

Changes to the criminal justice system are coming, with a new secure educational establishment - an alternative to prison-style young offenders institutions - opening in Medway this summer. Staff at the Oasis Restore secure school are already in their roles and the first children will be admitted in a matter of weeks. It is a proper teaching space, and a change which Smithson describes as a “radical departure” for the British criminal justice system. When it was first proposed there were two sites under discussion, another in the north of England, but a second secure school has yet to be confirmed. 

There are high hopes for the success of this model which, given the failings of prison life for the rehabilitation of children that COVID exposed, could replace imprisonment for children if found to be effective. However, campaigners for prison reform worry that there could be a perverse incentive to lock more children up if those taught at the secure school are found to have higher rates of rehabilitation than other models. 

One of the few successes of the last decade in justice policy has been a dramatic fall in the number of children serving a custodial sentence from more than 3,000 to the low hundreds today. They worry that progress could be too easily reversed - particularly as the more contact children have with the criminal justice system the more likely they are to become entrenched within it.

“If there is a way of responding to crime that is perceived as a silver bullet, you don’t want more people brought into a system that is ultimately harmful,” says Robert Preece, a spokesperson for the Howard League for Penal Reform. “We have about 400 children in the prison system and I would hate that figure to double because a secure school has been successful. In the majority of cases children should be with family, friends and people who can support them in the community. If a terrible thing has happened, rather than putting all our attention on punishing that person and making them feel worse, it needs to be about how we can stop that terrible thing happening again.”