Sir David Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, is to set up the investigation following concern that large numbers of juveniles are continuing to be locked up with adults and older youths despite government pledges to end the practice.
Sir David is concerned about the risk of teenagers, some of whom are awaiting trial, attempting to commit suicide, learning criminal and drug habits and suffering from bullying from older inmates. There is evidence some prisons are failing to provide the legal minimum education for the 15- and 16-year-olds in their care.
It is understood that the Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons has identified more than 40 jails in England and Wales where 15 and 16-year-olds are being held. On 31 January there were 319 male youths aged between 15 and 16 being held in penal establishments.
The Inspectorate is so concerned it has for the first time taken representatives of the Social Service Inspectorate along with education inspectors into prisons to see teenage inmates. In one establishment it is understood the 15 and 16-year-olds were only offered education for one evening a week, which would appear to break the Children's Act.
Sir David is also known to want the establishment of a Director of Youth Custody, to oversee the conditions of juveniles in jails.
Public concern about the death of Philip Knight, 15, who hanged himself while on remand in Swansea adult jail in 1990 led the Government to promise to keep teenagers out of penal establishments.
Instead they are supposed to be kept in local authority secure units and bail support schemes.
But the rise in the number of young people on remand, or those convicted being jailed, has forced large numbers of 15 and 16-year-old males to be locked up in adults jails.
Juveniles are one of the fastest growing groups in jails. In 1992 there were 1,098 15 and 16-year-olds in penal establishments. This has risen to 1,889 in 1995, a 72-per-cent increase.
Sir David highlighted the issue in his report on Portland youth offenders institution, published last week. He said: "Juveniles [need] to have a separate regime from young offenders, because their needs are very different."
Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, said: "An inquiry is urgently needed, the number of juveniles wrongly held in prisons is rocketing." He added: "Regimes have been deteriorating and the risk of young people being contaminated by experienced criminals has intensified, along with the prospect of bullying and suicide attempts."Reuse content