‘Cruel and inhuman’: High Court challenge on behalf of boy held in cell 23 hours a day
The High Court has agreed to hear a legal challenge brought by the Howard League for Penal Reform on behalf of a boy held in his cell for more than 23 hours per day in a London prison.
During the short periods the boy, who court documents identify only as AB, has been allowed out of his cell, he has not been permitted to have contact with any other child. A judge has agreed that the case should be held urgently after the penal reform charity successfully applied for judicial review on the grounds that the boy’s removal from association, and the lack of education provision, is unlawful.
In a statement of grounds prepared on the boy’s behalf, it has been stated that the practice of informally removing children from association without any statutory basis, and subjecting them to solitary confinement, appears worryingly to be common not only at Feltham but also at other juvenile prisons across England and Wales.
The statement reads:
‘If the claimant is correct that such a practice is unlawful, and indeed if it constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of children, it is a matter of real importance that it be remedied by the courts.’
While this is believed to be the first judicial review of this practice, according to the Howard League this is not an isolated incident. The group states that they have supported at least six teenage boys under the age of 18 who have been in conditions of solitary confinement for periods ranging from weeks to more than six months.
‘Caging children for over 22 hours a day is unacceptable,’ commented Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League. ‘All the evidence shows that it can cause irreparable damage. This practice must cease.’
In a decision in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that there were ‘well known’ risks involved in solitary confinement, and that ‘prolonged’ solitary confinement – defined as lasting longer than 15 days – was particularly harmful.
In reaching their decision, the Supreme Court referred to expert evidence that the prolonged solitary confinement of adults can have an “extremely damaging effect on … mental, somatic and social health” and “some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible”.
The impact of this practice can be even greater on children.
In his annual report for 2014-15, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons reported that in Feltham more than one quarter of prisoners (26%) were being ‘managed on units under a restricted regime that excluded them from activities and meant that they were unlocked for less than an hour a day – in effect, solitary confinement on their residential units’.
In a 2015 report, the Children’s Commissioner found that one-third of children in prison would spend time in isolation and that the practice is used disproportionately in respect of children from looked after and ethnic minority backgrounds.
Additionally, the National Preventative Mechanism, an independent body which monitors the treatment of prisoners found that in many cases ‘isolation outside the formal care and separation unit lasted for more than 22 hours a day, and could last for several weeks’. Their report on this matter drew attention to a ‘worrying number of instances where isolation was not subject to formal governance’.