Five children have been placed in adult prisons, breaking an international treaty on children's rights, it has emerged. The Youth Justice minister, Jeremy Wright, admitted the under-18s had been transferred from youth custody to adult prisons in 2011, in answer to a parliamentary question earlier this month.
The decision to hold young people in adult prisons contravenes Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC], which states that "every child or young person who is locked up must be separated from adults, unless it is better for him or her to be with adults".
The campaign group the Howard League for Penal Reform described the practice as "a cause for great concern", that "endangers" young people.
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the charity, told The Independent: "What we sometimes see is young people who tend to be seen as 'difficult' being moved into adult prisons" so as to separate them from other young offenders. "Effectively, what the Prison Service does in these instances is to designate the cell [that the young offender is moved to] as 'young offender institution'."
It is a practice that should be investigated, according to Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust. She told The Independent: "In exceptional cases you do need to detain young people but if you use an adult prison which has limited staffing levels and no specialist skills with teenagers, you are bound to make matters worse. Young offender institutions should have the systems in place to deal with difficult youths within their own units."
The fact that some units are unable to deal with young people in their charge raises questions as to whether custody is the most appropriate place for deeply disturbed young people in the first place.
One in 10 young people in custody have some form of psychosis and far more have other mental health needs. The number of young people who were held in custody has dropped by 45 per cent in the past five years, a move welcomed by the Prison Reform Trust.
"Putting young people in prison is the surest way to ensure an adult prison population," said Ms Lyon.
Locking up under-18s with adult offenders, Mr Neilson added, is "inappropriate" and raises serious concerns about the fitness of the juvenile prison service. "It limits the access they will have to programmes and services and positive activities because they are going to be restricted to their cell so that they are not mixing with adults," he said.
The issue of children in adult prisons was raised during parliamentary questions on 10 January. Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, asked: "How many offenders under the age of 18 were held in the adult secure estate in 2011?". Jeremy Wright replied: "Five young people aged under-18 years were authorised to move into the over-18 secure estate during 2011."
While the Prison Service refused to comment on individual cases, a spokesman said: "In exceptional circumstances, any young person can be transferred to an adult prison. This will usually happen because a young person's violent or disruptive behaviour presents an unacceptable risk to the welfare of other young people."
Mr Neilson said: "If this is happening then it is not a temporary thing... It could be days or even weeks."