Children are being locked up in their cells in youth offender institutions for more than 23 hours a day during the coronavirus. HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) visited a number of institutions which hold children aged 15-17 to report on their response to the Covid-19 crisis finding that at one children only had 4o minutes a day out of their cells.
The report focusing on inspections in Cookham Wood, Parc and Wetherby YOIs highlighted that on the whole measures to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic were being well handled by prison staff: ‘Swift actions [were] taken by managers at all sites to ensure children were held safely, which included significant regime restrictions, allocating children to family groups of three or four and implementing social distancing measures.’
However what remained the primary concern was that while the government’s advice has been for education in the community to continue, especially for the most vulnerable – which is arguably the majority of the YOI population – this has not been the case. Cookham Wood only allowed young people 40 minutes a day outside their cell, whilst Wetherby allowed one hour. Children at Parc had three hours which included face-to-face education and PE, in compliance with social distancing measures.
The chief inspector Peter Clarke wrote: ‘While a reduction in time unlocked was inevitable, the variation between establishments was a concern and raised the question of the need for, and therefore the proportionality of, the most restrictive regimes.’
The Government’s advice is that those who are deemed vulnerable should be able to attend education in the community. Clarke continued: ‘Most children held in custody would meet this definition, and the leaders of all three establishments had wanted to deliver at least some education within public health guidance, so it is hard to see the justification for why such different approaches had been taken.’
Children have also not been able to see friends and families, although they had been provided with additional phone credit – again at varying amounts at each establishment. Video calling facilities have still not been set-up.
Peter Clarke said that this was an overall positive report: ‘Crucially, cases of Covid-19 have been contained effectively with little impact on the wider establishments. However, there are some key inconsistencies between establishments that need addressing: the provision of education, activity, additional phone credit and video calling.’
The report followed what the inspectors call a ‘short scrutiny visit; which visits three and aims to provide ‘a snapshot’ of how the institution is responding to COVID-19. The idea is to fulfil inspectorate’s statutory duty to report ‘without adding unreasonable burden to a system currently dealing with unprecedented challenges’.