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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Excessive use of restraint and solitary confinement of our children in custody

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Joint Committee on Human Rights expresses concerns about solitary confinement and restraint of children and young people in custody.

The use of pain inducing techniques and solitary confinement of children in detention must be banned, says a new report by the UK Parliament’s Human Rights Committee. These cause physical distress and psychological harm in both the short and longer term, and are clearly not compliant with human rights standards. The report “Youth detention: solitary confinement and restraint” was published on Good Friday.

Variety of institutions considered during inquiry

The inquiry considered several different types of institution which, taken together detain around 2,500 children at any one time: some for care, treatment or welfare reasons, and some because of criminal offences. Each type of institution has its own terminology and rules governing the use of restraint and the use of separation from human contact.

  • Around 1,200 children with mental health issues are detained in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) Tier 4 units, under the mental health legislation.
  • Around 250 autistic children and children with learning disabilities are detained in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs), CAMHS units or other inpatient units, under the mental capacity legislation or mental health legislation.
  • Around 900 children are detained in the Youth Secure Estate under custodial sentences for criminal convictions: 650 children aged 15–17 in Youth Offenders’ Institutes (YOIs); 130 children aged 15–17 years in Secure Training Centres (STCs); and 120 children aged 10–14 years in Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs).
  • Around 100 children aged 10–14 years are detained in Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs) for welfare reasons. 

Data shows that children are restrained too often, with thousands of unjustified restraints each year, and that separation is also used too often – with rates of restraint and separation even higher for BAME children. The issue is that staff move too quickly to use restraint or separation. 

Report conclusions

  • the use of restraint for the purposes of ‘discipline and good order’ in Youth Offenders Institutes (YOIs) must be prohibited in all but the most exceptional circumstances;
  • the use of prone (face-down) restraint is distressing, potentially dangerous, and its use as anything but a last resort is not compliant with human rights standards for children;
  • the use of separation from normal human contact is harmful to children if used for more than a few hours at a time, and it can amount to inhumane or degrading treatment that is a breach of children’s rights;
  • incidents of separation can ‘drift’, with children ending up in what amounts to solitary confinement, and while this is not a policy decision by the Government, it is within the power of Government to prevent it. Where isolation from normal human contact exceeds 22 hrs per day, this is ‘solitary confinement’ as defined in international law; where it exceeds 15 days it is ‘prolonged solitary confinement’. It is unlawful to subject children to solitary confinement.
© Andy Aitchison

Report recommendations

  • pain-inducing restraints in YOIs should be banned and the use of restraint for the purposes of ‘good order and discipline’ must be prohibited in all but the most exceptional of circumstances;
  • restraint must be more rigorously regulated by governing health bodies and regulators, including by annual publication of statistics for each institution (broken down by patients’ diagnoses, age and justification for not using an alternative method);
  • all use of separation in all institutions is regulated and monitored, with data published annually by institution;
  • decisions and reviews of decisions to extend periods of separation of a child should be reported to the responsible Ministers on a monthly basis for certification and laid before Parliament for publication; 
  • there is a need for more staff who are better trained, and a better mix of skills to relate to children and to de-escalate incidents without resource to restraint or separation
  • there is a need for more places in appropriate institutions and more places closer to homes so that family can help with care and rehabilitation
  • the process of complaints, resolution and redress needs to be improved to give children and families confidence that it is worth trying to enforce their rights including by greater transparency about disciplining staff who breach their rights.

The inquiry found that for all forms of restraint and separation (whether acceptable or not) data collection is incomplete and there is good reason to believe that these practices are under-reported. Data is presented in ways that make it harder to interpret and the use of different definitions makes it harder to compare between different types of institutions. The report recommends that data collection must be improved, and data about all types of restraint and separation should be published.

Finally, the report concludes that not enough is done to ensure that children in detention are aware of their rights, or what to do if these are breached. Families often do not have full access to evidence that would help in appeals. The Committee recommends more involvement from families in decisions about the children, more proactive roles for independent advocates, more effective debriefs after incidents, and publication of data about appeals and their outcomes.

Verdict

The inquiry found that for all forms of restraint and separation (whether acceptable or not) data collection is incomplete and there is good reason to believe that these practices are under-reported. Data is presented in ways that make it harder to interpret and the use of different definitions makes it harder to compare between different types of institutions. The report recommends that data collection must be improved, and data about all types of restraint and separation should be published.

Finally, the report concludes that not enough is done to ensure that children in detention are aware of their rights, or what to do if these are breached. Families often do not have full access to evidence that would help in appeals. The Committee recommends more involvement from families in decisions about the children, more proactive roles for independent advocates, more effective debriefs after incidents, and publication of data about appeals and their outcomes.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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2 thoughts on “Excessive use of restraint and solitary confinement of our children in custody”

  1. Excellent article and it is unacceptable that the UK over-uses isolation and restraint of children and young people. I worked recently for a year with the Oregon Youth Authority where they instigated a new isolation policy with a number of processes and procedures that help massively reduce the use of isolation in favor of other actions. All within secure Youth Correctional Facilities. I’d love to share with others if interested.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment, Simon. It’s good to hear about Oregon’s positive way forward. I’m sure lots of readers would be interested in the approach.
      Best Wishes
      Russell

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