Children and adult prisoners are being held in solitary confinement with as little as 15 minutes a day out of their cells, says the chief inspector of prisons, as he branded it a “disgrace” in modern Britain.
Peter Clarke said he was particularly concerned about children being confined to their cells without any education or contact with their peers.
Citing a report at the start of the year, he said children were being “separated” in what amounted to solitary confinement to either maintain order or their own decision to self-isolate.
“The findings were, frankly, a disgrace,” he said in his annual report published on Tuesday. “In many cases children were being held in circumstances that amounted to solitary confinement.
“Some children were unable to access the very basics of everyday life, including a shower and telephone call; in the worst cases, children left their cells for just 15 minutes a day.”
“The extraordinary and inexcusable fact is that all of this came as a surprise to the Youth Custody Service itself. There was simply no appreciation of what was happening in the establishments for which they were responsible.”
Mr Clarke, who is due to step down from his position at the end of October, welcomed the decision by Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, to scrap such separation and redesign the way that children were treated.
However, he said he was concerned by the failure to progress plans for secure schools where teachers, health experts and welfare officers could support their learning.
Mr Clarke said there was still no sign of them becoming reality nearly four years after they were recommended in a review by Charlie Taylor, a former youth justice board chair who will succeed him as chief inspector of prisons.
“One site has been identified, but the facility is unlikely to open before the end of 2021 at the earliest. There is no timeframe for other secure schools to open. Meanwhile, the outcomes for many children have been appalling,” said Mr Clarke.
He also warned that prisoners being locked in their cells for 23 hours a day under Covid restrictions was dangerous. He said inmates were "losing hope" and warned of the impact on their mental health.
The Prison Officers' Association (POA) has said the practice - which aims to help reduce the spread of the virus - has reduced violence and self-harm. It has led to a more stable environment, the POA said.
But Mr Clarke said he found that argument "shallow" and "to an extent self-serving.” He said he had "good reason to believe" that self-harm was actually rising in women's prisons.