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Health

Covid causes child detention crisis, and a ‘timebomb’ in adult prisons


Serious concerns are emerging over the treatment of children in custody during the coronavirus pandemic, after evidence that some have been spending as little as 40 minutes a day out of their cell.

A series of “serious consequences for children’s rights, wellbeing and long-term outcomes” has been identified in an investigation by the office of the children’s commissioner for England. This comes with ministers warning that there is now an increased risk of self-harm and violence in adult prisons as a result of measures introduced to tackle Covid-19.

Children in custody have been subject to restricted activities for the past eight weeks, as institutions attempt to comply with official social-distancing guidance. Face-to-face education sessions have stopped in most centres, and visits have been hugely reduced. “Access to time out of cell, education, activities and family and professional visits have been severely curtailed,” the investigation finds.

“Some children in custody have been spending all but 40 minutes of the day locked in their cells during lockdown. As lockdown slowly eases for many of us, and we are encouraged to spend as long as we want outside because of the benefits to our wellbeing, children in custody are still spending the majority of the day in their cells.

“Time in custody should be focused on education and rehabilitation. This support is being disrupted during this pandemic with potentially serious consequences for children’s rights, wellbeing and long-term outcomes.”

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New guidelines allow for children in custody to associate in groups of three or four, but most institutions do not have the “space nor the staffing levels to supervise this many small groups for long periods of time”, the report states. Many education buildings are closed, and support staff no longer available.

One boy told the authors: “When you’ve got nothing to do, you’ve got a lot more time to think, and then you can start thinking about bad things and that’s how it escalates. And if you’ve got nothing to do, and you’re just watching telly and sleeping all day, it just ruins you.”

Some institutions have put additional support in place for the most vulnerable children, but the investigation concludes: “The fact remains, however, that children in custody are spending too much time alone in their cells, and this should be urgently addressed by reducing the numbers in custody or increasing staffing levels.”

Children reported that they were struggling with the lack of visits, with some facilities having no video-call facilities. One boy said: “It’s hard, because I’m used to being shown love on the outside, even just a hug is nice… obviously you don’t get to have that feeling in here, it’s a bit harder, especially with visits being off… that’s the hardest thing I’ve gone through.”

Justice minister Lucy Frazer.



Justice minister Lucy Frazer warned that prisoners spending more time in their cells suffered health risks. Photograph: Michael Mayhew/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

It comes as the justice minister Lucy Frazer warned last week that there were also increased risks in adult prisons. “Prisoners will spend more time in their cells, which we recognise may increase the risk of self-harm or violence,” she said in a parliamentary answer.

“We have provided guidance to governors on the risks of isolation on both self-harm and violence, and a range of materials have been provided to help mitigate this risk, including distraction packs and in-cell activities. In recognition of the positive impact that family contact can have in terms of a prisoners’ mental health, we have provided locked mobile handsets for those without in-cell telephony. Additionally, we are extending the ‘email a prisoner’ facility to all sites.” 

The Lib Dem MP Layla Moran said: “We have a mental health timebomb in our prisons and the government has admitted that violence and self-harm could rise as a result of their actions. It is time for the government to invest in our prisons rather than running them into the ground. We have a system close to collapse having to fight a pandemic on a shoestring. Otherwise we are brewing up a toxic mix that could bring about a coronavirus catastrophe in our prisons.”



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