Hundreds of children in young offenders' institutions are being held in solitary confinement, often for weeks at a time, in what prison reform campaigners claim is a 'medieval' form of punishment.
The practice will be highlighted this week when an independent inquiry, conducted by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile, delivers what is expected to be a damning assessment of the way the 2,700 children in Britain's penal system are treated.
Carlile's report, to be published on Friday, will focus on three main areas: physical restraint, forcible strip searching and solitary confinement.
The inquiry found that, between April and September last year, 125 children were isolated for up to seven days at Lancaster Farms young offenders' institution in Blackburn. Last January 16-year-old Gareth Price died while being held in the segregation unit. At Stoke Heath in Shropshire, children were placed in solitary confinement for up to seven days on 73 occasions. Eighteen of these were held for between seven and 28 days and four for more than 28 days.
The Youth Justice Board, which monitors the treatment of children in prison, stipulates that solitary confinement cannot be used as a punishment under any circumstances. Last week it issued new guidance for managing the behaviour of children in prisons.
'We have monitors who visit these institutions and any incident of separation is recorded,' a spokeswoman said, adding that a young offender could only be placed in a segregation unit if they were a threat to others or themselves. The Carlile report is expected to provide examples where some institutions have used solitary confinement as a punishment.
'Children are placed in cells built for adults that are stone cold with no radios or televisions,' said Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform. 'Most of these kids can't read, so they have nothing to do. If it rains and they miss their exercise period, they're in there all day. It's like putting them in a dungeon. It's medieval. The children are told if they behave they will be allowed out. But they don't know how to control themselves, that's why they're in prison in the first place.'
Chris Callender, a lawyer with the Howard League, who has taken legal action against a number of institutions for placing children in solitary confinement, said that segregation was often used because prisoners had been wrongly assessed. 'My experience is that there are a lot of kids finding themselves in segregations units because they haven't received sufficient mental health support,' he said. 'They should be receiving psychiatric support, not prison.'
The Carlile inquiry was established after 15-year-old Gareth Myatt died while being restrained by officers in Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre in Northamptonshire in April 2004. An inquest has yet to be held.
(c) The Observer UK