Coronavirus (Covid-19): The impact on prisons Contents

3Children and young people in the custodial estate during COVID-19

69.The children’s estate has also been affected by the outbreak of Covid-19. As of March 2020, there were 738 children in the youth secure estate, more than one third of whom (274) were being held on remand.86 Measures introduced in the adult estate have been similarly applied, including: suspension of normal regimes in order to apply social distancing; suspension of prison visits; and the possibility of early release for some children under the End of Custody Temporary Release scheme.87

70.Children in the youth custodial estate are particularly vulnerable: the number is small but the cohort entering custody over the past 10 years have had increasingly complex requirements, including on mental health and special educational needs. The cohort includes many children who are or were looked-after children as well as a high proportion excluded from schools. There are high levels of self-harm and violence in the youth estate; in the latest year (2018/19) the number of Restrictive Physical Interventions increased by 16%, and the number of self-harm incidents increased by 3%. For both measures, these are the highest number of incidents in the last five years.88

71.Given their existing vulnerabilities as a cohort, concerns have been raised about the effect Covid-19 is having on children; Keith Fraser, Chair of the Youth Justice Board (YJB) told the Committee that “Covid-19 could be viewed, first of all, as another adverse childhood experience for children, due to the circumstances in their home life and, secondly in relation to mental health in children. There is some evidence at the moment, and we are testing its validity, of additional self-harm and an increase in attempted suicide. There is also an impact on training and education, which leads to a sense of increased isolation and could have a detrimental impact on children in their re-assimilation to society.”89

72.On 18 March 2020, a coalition of charities wrote to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, raising concern about children in custody and asked that “the Youth Custody Service make arrangements to release and stop admitting, children who can be safely supervised and looked after within the community”.90 In the year ending March 2019, the majority (66%) of outcomes for children remanded to youth detention accommodation at some point during court proceedings, did not subsequently result in a custodial sentence.91 In the latest year for which statistics are available, there were nearly 1,200 outcomes following a remand to youth detention accommodation; just under a third (32%) of these outcomes resulted in acquittal.92 We acknowledge that different legal tests apply to decisions on remand and on eventual sentence, and that a number of complex issues stand to be considered in each case. We recommend, however, that the Government investigate the reasons behind the relatively high level of remand into custody and explain the reasons behind that, particularly given the pressures on the custodial estate during the coronavirus outbreak.

73.The End of Custody Temporary Release scheme was available from 6 April 2020, to children meeting the criteria for release. Fewer than 10 children were deemed eligible for early release under the scheme, and at 2 June no child had been released.93

Regime restrictions

74.Similar regime restrictions apply to children as apply to adults. However, concerns have been raised about the specific impact severe restrictions may have on children. Commenting on the effect of current regimes in custody, the Howard League, in a briefing on Children in prison during the Covid-19 pandemic, state:

“In response to Covid-19, the regime in prisons has been severely restricted, with most children being placed in prolonged solitary confinement. There are no face-to-face visits, no face-to-face education in the majority of establishments and no therapy. Children are experiencing difficulties in accessing the support they need to plan for release. The usual safeguards that exist, including on-site advocacy services, are no longer present.94

75.In April, HM Inspectorate of Prisons produced a Report on short scrutiny visits to young offender institutions holding children. The report discusses findings from short scrutiny visits to Cookham Wood, Parc and Wetherby Young Offender Institutions (YOIs). At the time of HMIP’s scrutiny visit the three establishments held around 400 children. Although all three sites carry out the same function they vary considerably in size and operation. Cookham Wood and Wetherby are operated directly by the Youth Custody Service and Parc is operated by G4S..95

76.The Inspectorate found some inconsistencies between establishments, but Peter Clarke noted that “this is a generally positive report, which details the swift actions taken to keep children safe, as well as the creativity of staff and managers in providing opportunities for children to receive meaningful interaction. Crucially, cases of COVID-19 have been contained effectively with little impact on the wider establishments”.96 Particularly notable examples of good practice include:

i)Communication with both staff and children had been effective–staff and children had been well informed about the reasons for regime restrictions and social distancing measures the Inspectorate found that they were generally well implemented across all three establishments;

ii)All three establishments inspected had introduced enhanced safeguards to monitor well-being and mental health;

iii)Management oversight of health care and partnership working was generally found to be effective across the three sites inspected.

77.Additionally, HMIP commented that:

“Only Parc was able to plan and deliver limited face-to-face education that complied with social distancing requirements. As a consequence, children at Parc received over three hours out of their cell each day, compared with just 40 minutes at Cookham Wood and around an hour at Wetherby. The Government’s advice is that those who are deemed vulnerable should be able to attend education in the community. 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.”97

78.Further to the restricted regimes, the suspension of visits means that families, social workers, youth offending team workers, lawyers and other relevant professionals cannot meet face-to-face with children in the secure estate. HMIP in its recent report stated that, in the YOIs they inspected, “All children had in-cell telephones. In response to the lack of visits all three sites provided additional phone credit: £5 a week at Parc and £20 a week at Cookham Wood and Wetherby. In addition, weekly ‘pocket money’ payments continued, and many looked after children received enhanced payments from local authorities”. HMIP further stated that “all sites were slow to adopt video calling technology”,98 however on 15 May 2020 the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced that following a successful trial at HMP Berwyn, secure video calls will be introduced to prisons and young offenders’ institutions.99

Easing lockdown restrictions

79.Although lockdown restrictions are being eased in the community, they have not yet been eased in the secure estate. Institutions holding children continue to be in a state of lockdown with restricted regimes still in place.100 Colin Allars, Chief Executive of the Youth Justice Board, told the Committee of concerns about the long-term impact of restrictions on children, stating: “We are concerned about the potential for long-term impacts. To take where we have got to, effectively children in the system have had a pretty difficult time for 10 weeks in terms of education in the secure estate or in the support they have had in the community. Undoubtedly, it has been a difficult time for them.”101 Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons said:

“We are being told now that, while prisoners and children in YOIs have understood the need for restrictions so far, as they begin to see the situation changing in the community, they will lose patience if they do not see a similar progression. It might not necessarily be at the same pace—that would be broadly understood—but there needs to be some progression within the custodial estate on relaxing regimes.”102

80.On 2 June, the MoJ and HMPPS published a National Framework for Prison Regimes and Services, setting out a conditional roadmap for what the easing of COVID-19 restrictions will mean in practice (the details of this are set out in Chapter 1). The MoJ and HMPPS note that their “plans will need to be flexible enough to accommodate the very different circumstances and situations of different prisons (the appropriate regime will be very different between a YCS establishment, a High-Security prison, a female Open prison and so on).”103 Commenting on the framework in oral evidence to the Committee, Peter Clarke, Chief Inspector of Prisons states that:

“ … if you look at the national framework, the children’s estate is literally a footnote to it. It points out in a footnote that the framework applies to YOIs. The fact is that the so-called exceptional delivery models, which are being put together to implement the framework in practical terms, have not so far included the children’s estate, and there is going to be a separate one drawn up for the children’s estate. It is all part of the bigger problem, which is that, basically, children’s custody is a subset of the adult prison estate and is treated as such in many ways. There needs to be far more discrimination.”104

81.We recommend that the MoJ and Youth Custody Service set out how they have responded to the crisis in the context of the children’s estate and how the specific needs of children have been considered. It is also unclear why there is such a disparity in the regimes provided across the youth estate; the MoJ and Youth Custody Service should set out what is being done to address disparities and ensure that all children in the estate receive equivalent provision.

82.We are concerned that there does not appear to be a sufficiently clear, separate plan on how the youth custodial estate will transition out of the current lockdown phase. We agree that plans need to be flexible enough to accommodate different circumstances and situation of prisons, but we do not believe that this commitment is reflected in the National Framework for Prisons and Services. We are disappointed that children and young people appear as a “footnote” in the National Framework and believe that the specific needs of this cohort should be clearly articulated. The Committee recommend that the MoJ and Youth Custody Service set out in greater detail specifically how the children’s estate will transition out of the current phase of lockdown, bearing in mind our current understanding of the relative risks from Covid-19 in the youth custody estate and those in the adult estate.

86 Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, ‘Youth Custody Report: April 2020’, accessed 19 June 2020

87 A statutory Instrument was laid on 6 April 2020 amending the Prison and Young Offender Institution Rules to allow for early release due to the Coronavirus. The scheme only applies to those children in Young Offenders Institutions and Secure Training Centres. At present there is no power in place for the scheme to be applied in Secure Children’s Homes.

88 Youth Justice Board and Ministry of Justice, Youth Justice Statistics 2018/19, January 2020

89 Oral evidence taken on 2 June 2020, HC 306, Q2 [Keith Fraser]

90 Article 39, ‘Joint call for safe release of child prisoners’, accessed 19 June 2020

91 Youth Justice Board and Ministry of Justice, Youth Justice Statistics 2018/19, January 2020

92 Youth Justice Board and Ministry of Justice, Youth Justice Statistics 2018/19, January 2020

93 Oral evidence taken on 2 June 2020, HC 306, Q9 [Angus Mulready-Jones]

94 The Howard League, Children in prison during Covid-19 pandemic (May 2020), p 1

99 Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19) and prisons’, accessed 19 June 2020

100 Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, COVID-19: National Framework for Prison Regimes and Services, 2 June 2020, p 2

101 Oral evidence taken on 2 June 2020, HC 306, Q5 [Colin Allars]

102 Oral evidence taken on 2 June 2020, HC 306, Q3 [Peter Clarke]

103 Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, COVID-19: National Framework for Prison Regimes and Services, 2 June 2020, p 3

104 Oral evidence taken on 16 June 2020, HC 306, Q24 [Peter Clarke]

Published: 27 July 2020