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Why are we segregating so many children in custody?
The Children's Commissioner highlights a worrying increase in the number of children segregated in youth custody.

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In a report published last Wednesday (10 October 2018), the Children’s Commissioner for England drew attention to the worrying rise in the number of young people segregated in custody.

The Commissioner’s brief factual summary highlights the extent of the problem:

The number of episodes of segregation in youth custody in England and Wales has increased in the past 4 years, even as the overall number of children detained has fallen. The average length of periods of detention has doubled, from 8 to 16 days, with seven out of ten episodes of segregation in Young Offender Institutions lasting over a week. The number of episodes of segregation in STCs has also risen and is now (on a pro rata basis) approximately 33 times higher, though it is likely this is influenced by changes in how data is recorded.

Who is the children’s commissioner?

The Children’s Commissioner for England, currently Anne Longfield, has a statutory duty to promote and protect the rights of all children in England. This duty extends to children within the criminal justice system. The Commissioner also chairs the Children’s Sub-Group of the National Preventative Mechanism, so has a role in independently monitoring custodial conditions for Children in England and Wales to strengthen the protection of children deprived of their liberty.

The Commissioner undertakes a rolling programme of visits to Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and Secure Training Centres (STCs) where she speaks to children and staff to keep abreast of issues children are experiencing. Over the past 12 months an issue of concern raised during these visits has been the use of segregation, with reports of some children spending up to 23.5 hours in a cell each day, for days and sometimes weeks on end. This practice would appear to contravene Articles 37 and 40 of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child2. In response to this information, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) undertook to collect data from all YOIs and STCs about their use of segregation.

The segregation of young offenders in secure settings receives significantly less attention than other issues within the youth justice estate. Restraint, for example, has been the subject of intense media scrutiny, independent reviews, and a thematic report from HMIP.

What is segregation?

The experience of segregation varies greatly across different types of settings. This is, in part, influenced by the different legislation which governs the use of segregation in YOIs and STCs.

Rule 36 of the Secure Training Centre Rules states that a child may be removed from free association to stop them from:

  • causing harm to themselves;
  • causing harm to another person; or
  • significantly damaging property.

The Secure Training Centre rules also stipulate that children should only be processed under rule 36 when all other appropriate methods of control have been unsuccessfully applied. Rule 36 also dictates that children are observed at least once in every period of 15 minutes, and not left unaccompanied (during normal waking hours) for more than 3 hours.

The legislation which governs YOIs, however, is far less explicit in its directions about the use of removal from association. Rule 49 of the Young Offender Institution Rules states that children should be removed from association when:

  • it is necessary for the maintenance of good order or discipline; or
  • it is in their own interests not to associate with other children, either generally or for particular purposes.

The rules set out that the governor must give written authorisation to remove a child from association for a period of longer than 72 hours. After 72 hours, the governor can give written authorisation for the continued removal of the child to a maximum of 21 days, at which point approval must be sought from the Secretary of State (SoS). In practice, this sign off often comes from a Deputy Director of Custody (DDC) in place of the SoS. The DDC is a HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) official who oversees a number of prisons in an area. If a child is to be removed for a period of 3 months or longer, then the sign off must come from the Director of Public Sector Prisons at HMPPS.

The conditions under which children are separated vary greatly across different settings. In STCs, children are segregated in their rooms, or other spaces such as empty classrooms, for a relatively short period of time. In YOIs however, most recorded periods of segregation refer to when the child has been formally removed to the segregation unit. These units are similar to those found in adult prisons – some are actually shared with the adult estate. Children are often left in the segregation unit without any meaningful contact with their peers, in cells with very few – sometimes none – of their possessions or other stimuli such as books and radios. In theory, removal from free association should not prohibit access to legal advice, advocacy, exercise and education. In practice, however, these appointments are often not facilitated. In some cases, children are in their cells all day and are only allowed out to shower or to exercise for 30-60 minutes. Sometimes they also have access to ‘education packs’ while in their cells.

The use the of segregation varies widely, with Parc YOI (located in Wales) reporting only 5 episodes in the period, compared with 137 at Wetherby YOI. Parc YOI is recognised by HMIP as having ‘commendably low’ levels of segregation, which is attributed to the effective use of other forms of behaviour management.15

The average length of an episode of segregation across all YOIs is 16.15 days. This number is worryingly high, particularly as we know that access to books, media, working facilities and activities is not guaranteed.

Across all YOIs there were 306 separate episodes of segregation which lasted over 1 week. When compared with the overall number of episodes of segregation, this figure is very high – it indicates that 70% of episodes of segregation lasted more than a week.

Another area of serious concern is the longest reported episodes of segregation. The longest period of segregation was 100 days, with all YOIs in England reporting at least one instance of segregation of 75 days or more. The Children’s Commissioner makes it clear that: “These figures are unacceptably long”.

The table below shops all instances of segregation in YOIs over a recent 6 month period:


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