Thousands of teenage inmates are being placed in isolation cells as punishment and physically restrained by prison officers every year, new Home Office figures have revealed.
Penal reformers said they were "appalled and amazed" at the disclosure that more than 4,400 male offenders aged 15 to 17 had been held in segregation cells over the past 22 months, and that prison officers had used "control and restraint" techniques against 3,600 juvenile male inmates in the same period. There are about 2,500 juveniles locked up in England and Wales at any one time.
Juvenile offenders – inmates aged 15 to 17 – can be placed in segregation for a range of offences; from swearing at a prison officer to stealing or bullying. Special cells are used to house the offenders, who can be locked up without a television, radio or personal possessions for up to 28 days. They are allowed out for exercise, a weekly family visit and, in some cases, lessons.
Penal reform groups have campaigned against the use of solitary confinement, arguing that it can be damaging and would normally be considered an act of child abuse.
Figures disclosed in a parliamentary answer by Beverley Hughes, a Home Office minister, show wide variation in the use of segregation at youth offenders institutions (YOI) in England and Wales.
Castington young offenders institution, 25 miles north of Newcastle, has used segregation the most, with 882 incidents since April 2000. This is followed by Onley, near Rugby, Warwickshire, with 661; Stoke Heath, near Market Drayton, Shropshire, 660; Hollesley Bay, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 504; and Huntercombe, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, 487.
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the prison authorities and Youth Justice Board, the government body set up to oversee the reform of criminal justice for young offenders, had pledged to reduce segregation since April 2000.
She said: "I'm gobsmacked and completely appalled at the numbers being placed in segregation ... We had expected five or 10 per prison. If a parent locked up a 15 or 16-year-old in this manner it would be termed child abuse." She was also scathing about the use of control and restraint. "We call for the abolition of these techniques, which would be unlawful and possibly even criminal in other circumstances," she said.
The techniques include placing an inmate on the floor or holding their arm behind their back. Feltham YOI in west London used force against juveniles most often, with 511 recorded incidents since April 2000, according to Home Office figures. This was followed by 450 at Castington YOI; 436 at Huntercombe YOI; and 413 at Stoke Heath.
Ms Hughes, in her written answer to the Labour MP Rudy Vis, said: "The length of stay [in segregation] ... will vary from no more than a few hours to a carefully prescribed number of days."Reuse content