Young people spent ‘at least 22 hours a day locked in their room’ during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a watchdog review of the youth prison estate which found that the long-term effect of interruption to mental healthcare services ‘remains to be determined’. The new report from the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) into four young offender institutions (YOIs) found that at Cookham Wood, young people spent 40 minutes a day out of their rooms which was similar to Wetherby and Feltham where young people spent 23 hours a day in their room.
IMBs, unpaid volunteers who visit prisons and immigration removal centres, argued the pandemic ‘exposed and exacerbated existing problems’. Before the beginning of the first national lockdown, IMBs criticised the use of segregation at several YOIs. At Cookham Wood, a young person spent over four months in the separation unit, before being transferred. Such an event was described as ‘inhumane’ by one IMB and raised directly with the Prisons Minister in March last year. At Feltham, with the closure of the enhanced support unit, young people in need of therapeutic care and reintegration were held in segregation conditions and treated as separated prisoners.
Boards described time out of rooms as ‘insufficient’ before the pandemic – for example, an average of seven hours on weekdays at Wetherby. This was reflected across other YOIs, such as Cookham, where staffing difficulties resulted in half-day lockdowns. ‘If these occurred on a Sunday, young people would be in their room for over 24 hours before being released on a Monday morning,’ the report says.
Segregation also featured as a consequence of bullying and intimidation at all four YOI establishments. At Wetherby, IMBs reported that some young people were ‘self-isolating’ as they were fearful of other offenders. Such a trend was common across Feltham and Werrington where young people, subject to bullying, preferred to remain in the segregation unit or their rooms. In Werrington, one young person isolated in his room for over 130 days before being transferred to hospital.
Such issues were ‘exacerbated’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the majority of the first national lockdown, young people were ‘effectively held in solitary confinement’, experiencing the same restrictions as adult prisoners. Although this led to young people feeling safer, the ‘immediate and cumulative effects on young people’s mental health have been severe’.