Huge rise in children being sent to prison

New figures reveal that the number of under-18s being held in British jails has doubled in the past decade
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The Independent Online

Jessica was 15 when found guilty of shoplifting and sent to Holloway prison in London. For six weeks, she shared a cell with three women and was allowed to shower only a couple of times a week.

"The experience made me very depressed," said 18-year-old Jessica (not her real name), who lives in Norwich with her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

"I had no one to talk to and felt very threatened, very intimidated ... Teenage girls feel vulnerable and shouldn't be in adult prisons."

Every year thousands of children such as Jessica are locked up in British jails, secure training centres or young offender institutes. Many have been sexually abused, a high number exhibit signs of severe mental illness and more than half are already known by social services.

Next week, new figures will show that there has been a 90 per cent increase in the use of child custody over the past decade and an eight-fold increase in the numbers of children under the age of 15 jailed. A report published by Nacro - formerly the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders - will reveal that in 2001, 7,600 offenders under the age of 18 and 800 under the age of 15 were jailed. This compares with 4,000 under 18 and 100 under 15 in 1992.

Nacro blames the rise in the number of children deprived of their liberty on the Government's "love affair" with custody and is calling for more community-based sentences for teenagers.

Last month, Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, called on the Government to outlaw the jailing of girls in adult prisons in an interview with The Independent on Sunday. Of particular concern is the alarming rate of self-harm among young people under 18, especially female inmates.

Between 1998 and 2002 there were more than 1,000 incidents of attempted suicide and self-abuse by children in prisons. Between 1998 and 2002, 12 boys, all aged between 16 and 17, killed themselves while in custody.

A snapshot report in December 2002 revealed that between 15 and 20 boys a week were being sent to young offender institutions because of lack of space elsewhere. Figures from the Youth Justice Board, which is responsible for young offenders, show there are 88 girls aged between 16 and 18 being held in women's jails, either on remand or after being sentenced.

In Holloway prison, according to a report published in February this year, there were 13 girls under 18 being held there in July last year, including three who were pregnant.

At Styal prison, in Cheshire, there have been six suicides over the past 12 months, including that of 18-year-old Sarah Campbell, who had a history of depression.

The Howard League is currently pursuing a High Court test case against David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, on behalf of a 16-year-old girl who was taken out of a secure unit and put into classes with adult women at Eastwood Park prison in Gloucestershire. The league said the Prison Service was breaking the law by holding children with adults. "Our view is that under-18s should not be held in prison at all," said Frances Crook, director of the league.

Defeat looms on young asylum seekers

By Paul Kelbie and Sophie Goodchild

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is facing defeat over his policy of jailing child asylum seekers.

Last week, a judge ordered the release of 32-year-old Mercy Ikolo and her 13-month-old daughter from Dungavel detention centre in Lanarkshire, where they had been held for almost three weeks.

Her solicitor had applied for bail on the grounds that the detention of Ms Ikolo, who fled political persecution in Cameroon, and her child breached international child-protection laws.

Ms Ikolo had travelled from her home in Ireland, where she is seeking residency, to visit friends in Scotland. But immigration officials seized her and her daughter, Percile-Liz, as she boarded a ferry back to Dublin. The Home Office intended to deport the pair to Uganda but instead sent them to Dungavel after Ms Ikolo protested.

Last night, campaigners claimed her case as a victory for human rights and said they planned to push for the release of five other families being held at the centre.

The Home Office reacted angrily to claims that Dungavel, a former prison, was not suitable for children. Beverley Hughes, the minister in charge of immigration, denied the centre was "some kind of Scottish Guantanamo Bay".

"This is an outrageous suggestion and offensive to the local people who work at the centre. A recent independent inspection reported that 'overall the centre was fair, decent and that ... [detainees] ... were well-treated by staff'."

However, staff at Dungavel have allegedly been fining asylum seekers at the centre for taking food back to their rooms. Lawyers for Fatima Muse, from Somalia, say she was fined her weekly allowance of £3.50 after taking cereal into her room to feed her two daughters when they became hungry.

The authorities claimed this was in direct contravention of centre rules which prohibit food in rooms for health, safety and hygiene reasons.

The detention of children at Dungavel was highlighted by the plight of the Kurdish Ay family, who were deported to Germany last month after spending more than a year at the centre. Church leaders, politicians and children's charities have all called on the Government to end the incarceration of children at Dungavel. Yesterday campaigners staged a rally outside the razor wire fence of the centre to call for its closure.

Aamer Anwar, a human rights lawyer who represented the Ay family, described their treatment there as "barbaric". "The Home Office has repeatedly breached international law, the UN convention on the rights of the child, and these crimes are being carried out on Scottish soil," he said.

John Swinney, the Scottish Nationalist leader, said he was calling more than 1,000 churches to bombard First Minister Jack McConnell with demands that he speak out against the imprisonment of asylum seekers at Dungavel.