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Solitary confinement should never be used on children and young people

Solitary confinement should never be used on children and young people
4 min read

Today, Seema Malhotra MP is hosting a Westminster Debate on the use of solitary confinement of young people in the justice system, ahead of the debate, she writes for PoliticsHome.

On Tuesday 1st May I am hosting a Westminster Debate on the use of solitary confinement of young people in the justice system when I will be backing the call from experts to end this practice in the UK.

Solitary confinement is the physical isolation of an individual who is confined to a cell or room, often for upwards of 22 hours a day. In April I hosted a round table in Parliament on this issue with the BMA, The Royal College of Psychiatrists and The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. They have issued a joint call for solitary confinement to be banned for children who are locked up in the UK based on evidence of harm, and have urged the Government to act.  Importantly, they have also produced guidance to help improve care for those segregated by prison officers until any ban is in place. The roundtable was attended by Peers and MPs including Ruth Cadbury MP, Luciana Berger MP and Kate Green MP.

In response to a previous written parliamentary question I tabled on this issue the Government responded that “We do not use solitary confinement. Young people can be removed from association under careful control where they will not be permitted to associate with other young people.”

It would appear that this response boils down to little more than semantics. We should be clear that as that any mechanism which results in a child or young person being physically and socially isolated for prolonged periods of time is solitary confinement, and has no place in the criminal justice system. Under Rule 49 of Young Offender Institution Rules, a prison governor can authorize for “removal from association” for up to 42 days. This can be extended further after application to the Secretary of State.

During the recent roundtable the Howard League highlighted the case of AB a boy, aged 15 calling an advice line run by the Howard League from Feltham YOI. The adviser who answered could tell he was miserable and fed up. He had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had been locked, alone, in a cell at HM Prison Feltham, for 23 hours a day, weeks on end, allowed outside only to shower and exercise. Understandably, he wanted to end his solitary confinement and was appealing for help. The Howard League stated that they ‘had no option to go for judicial review,’ and his case was heard last year at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.  The Court found his treatment was unlawful but stopped short of finding it ‘inhuman or degrading’. The charity hopes to overturn that part of judgment in the Court of Appeal. The Howard League received more than 40 calls last year from or about children in prison who are isolated.

The use of solitary confinement is widespread in the youth justice system in the UK, according to the Guidance, The medical role in solitary confinement, released by the BMA last week. And indeed more widespread than we might realise.

Almost four in 10 boys in detention spend some time in solitary confinement, according to studies it flags, for periods of almost three months. Children and young people are also being increasingly kept in ‘conditions of solitary confinement’ – in cells or rooms for up to 22 hours a day – amid reports of staff shortages and increased violence.

Evidence of the ‘profound impact’ of solitary on the health and well-being of young people, such as increased risk of suicide and self harm, is ‘unequivocal’, the statement says. There is also clear evidence that it is counter-productive. Rather than improving behaviour, solitary confinement fails to address the underlying causes, and creates problems with reintegration.

For these reasons, there is a growing international consensus – from groups including the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture – that solitary confinement should never be used on children and young people.

With Feltham YOI in my constituency, I am greatly concerned that young vulnerable people are entering a justice system where elements of that system could result in additional long term harm.  Isolating children heightens their risk of suicide and self-harm. It carries ‘serious risks’ of long-term psychiatric and developmental harm to people. Call them prisoners or patients, they’re still in a crucial stage of development, socially and neurologically. Solitary confinement should be abolished and prohibited and until it is, the health needs of those subject to it should be met.


Seema Malhotra is Labour and Co-operative MP for Feltham and Heston.

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