Although a High Court judge has ruled that children in prison
are protected by the Children Act 1989, the conditions in which the
prison service transports children remain untouched.
More than 20 months after Mr Justice Munby made his ruling,
young people still have no option but to urinate in cells in the
back of the vans transporting them, before being made to clean the
vans up on arrival.
Inspections and first-hand accounts have revealed that children
undergo lengthy journeys in the “sweat boxes”, punctuated by too
few comfort breaks and insufficient food. They are escorted by
staff inadequately trained to work with young people and unaware of
the Children Act’s requirements.
Penal reformers deplore these arrangements.
“Children are transported for a long time in inappropriate
conditions and not given comfort breaks,” says Fran Russell,
assistant director at the Howard League for Penal Reform. “Allowing
children to be treated in this way is incredible, especially as it
is accepted that young people are the most vulnerable group to
self-harm and committing suicide.”
During the case that led to Mr Justice Munby’s ruling,
which was taken to the High Court by the Howard League for Penal
Reform, the judge asked the barrister for the Home Office what was
being done to sort out the problems surrounding escort
When the barrister explained that a letter had been sent to
contractors reminding them of their responsibilities, the judge
remarked that this was insufficient. He suggested that a human
rights challenge to the practice would be successful.
Injury under escort
Chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers has also been
critical of the practice. During the course of a joint inspection
of Gloucestershire criminal justice area, she highlighted an
incident where a 16-year-old offender was injured while being
legitimately restrained by escort staff.
“Neither the escort nor prison staff managed the incident as a
child protection matter, or were aware of the need to document it
in accordance with child protection procedures,” she noted in her
Escort contract managers confirmed that they had no child
protection procedures and treated all defendants the same unless
they were known to be vulnerable.
Owers said that this meant that while courts had special
procedures for dealing with children and that the Children Act now
applied to children in prison, during their journey between court
and prison, when children would be at their most vulnerable, they
were in the hands of staff untrained in and unaware of the special
requirements for dealing with juveniles.
Monica Lloyd, head of thematic reviews at the prisons
inspectorate and lead inspector for the Gloucester review, says:
“[Escort] staff made the assumption that if they were old enough to
go to prison, they were old enough to be treated like adult
As a result, children were transported alongside adult
prisoners, “even when this involved an element of risk”, the
Gloucester report found. Lloyd says the mix of prisoners in the
vans was potentially unsafe. Owers confirms that no risk
assessments were carried out beforehand.
Children travel in their own cells on the vans so they are safe
from assault from other, perhaps adult, prisoners. But Owers warns
that the noise from other prisoners can often be threatening.
“There is the danger that children could be mistreated,” says
Russell. “It also raises questions as to whether social services
should be investigating the conditions these children are being
subjected to because they have duties and responsibilities towards
the children transported in their areas.”
Alarmingly, the vehicles – security vans with cells in the back
– fall short of what are acceptable standards in other vehicles as
they are not fitted with seat belts.
Owers says there was a move some time ago to introduce seat
belts, but it was argued that the only way a prisoner could be
harmed in a prison van was if there was a side impact – and seat
belts would not protect against that. “Imagine taking a school trip
in a minibus without seat belts. You wouldn’t even think
about it,” says Owers.
Indeed, Department for Education and Skills guidance says that
all minibuses and coaches carrying groups of three or more children
aged between three and 15 must be fitted with a seat belt for each
A Home Office spokesperson insists the department has given the
issue a lot of consideration, but that the benefits of seat belts
have to be weighed up against the downsides: seat belts could be
used to self-harm or as weapons against staff.
She adds that accidents are minimal, and that the confined space
means that prisoners would not be “thrown around” too badly.
Another big issue is the length of journeys. Owers warns that
the children can spend a very long time in an escort vehicle while
it goes round other prisons before finally arriving at the juvenile
At worst, it can take 10 hours from when a young person finishes
at court to when they arrive at prison, and that can include five
or six hours in an escort vehicle.
Given the lengths of time involved, Owers has frequently
complained that insufficient comfort breaks are provided. A Home
Office spokesperson says that escort contractors are required to
make comfort breaks on journeys longer than 2.5 hours and that
these would be planned into the journey.
But in her annual report for 2003, published last January, Owers
highlighted evidence of young people forced to urinate in property
bags during the journeys in five out of the seven establishments
that had been fully inspected. She adds that children travelling to
Onley Young Offender Institution do not even get issued with
property bags. As a result they are forced to urinate in the cells
in which they are transported – and are then made to clean the van
on arrival at the prison. She slams the practice as humiliating,
adding that the inspectorate has heard anecdotally that escort
staff are reluctant to stop for breaks because they have to meet
These long, uncomfortable journeys also appear to be
unmonitored. Unlike other vehicles undertaking long journeys,
prison vans are not fitted with tachographs.
The Home Office spokesperson confirms that tachographs are not a
legal requirement for prison vans. But the Road Haulage Association
says that drivers in virtually all commercial vehicles – even those
without a load – are expected to take a 45-minute break after 4.5
hours’ driving to assure the safety of the driver.
Owers argues that the issue needs careful monitoring. She says
the inspectorate also wants to look at making one agency
responsible for ensuring the young people get a meal at some point
during the day. Under current arrangements, children can be
expected to survive a long day on just several emergency
According to civil rights group Liberty, this combination of
insufficient food, lengthy journeys and the practice of urinating
in bags or cells almost certainly constitutes a breach of human
rights. A spokesperson for the charity says there is no
justification for subjecting someone to such “appalling and
Russell agrees. “If children were treated this way by any other
agency, it would be considered abusive. But because they have
offended, it has been considered as acceptable for far too
There is, however, a glimmer of hope as it has emerged that new
contracts are set to be negotiated. These will replace the existing
contracts, which were negotiated before the Youth Justice Board was
established in 1998. Responding to a parliamentary question,
prisons minister Paul Goggins confirmed: “New transport
arrangements for journeys to and from young offender institutions
will come into effect with new Prison Escort Custody Service
contracts on 29 August 2004.”
Under these contracts, juveniles would not be carried alongside
adult prisoners in vans with cells, Goggins added.
Next year, new contracts for transport between prisons will also
A YJB spokesperson says providing a separate system for
transporting young offenders will cost the board around £5m,
and that this has been made available in its budget settlements
with the Home Office. Action was not taken sooner because the board
had to wait until the prison service contracts came up for renewal
to include specific conditions for transportation of juveniles.
It is expected that, under the new contracts, multi-purpose
vehicles, such as people carriers, will be used in some
circumstances, although the use of vehicles with cells will
continue. Young people transported in multi-purpose vehicles will
have to wear seat-belts. It is likely the contracts will also
include a specification that no prisoner will travel more than 2.5
hours without a comfort stop. Failure to adhere to the contract
will lead to more severe penalties than under existing
arrangements, the Home Office spokesperson warns.
There will also be provisions made for escort staff to
receive training in dealing with juveniles, and for children to be
taken directly to the YOI wherever possible. Journeys will be
monitored through tachographs and reports on all journeys.
Russell says she is “astounded” that the Home Office has allowed
the current arrangements to go on for so long, particularly given
the judge’s comments in the Howard League ruling. However,
she welcomes the planned new contracts as a step in the right
She still believes, however, that vehicles with cells should not
be used at all as they are “totally inappropriate for children”.
She says: “These children have just been sentenced to imprisonment
and are extremely anxious. Leaving them hungry and thirsty in cells
is only going to put them at greater risk of self-harm and
Owers too welcomes the move towards new contracts, describing it
as long overdue. She promises to keep a close eye on how the new
arrangements pan out to ensure conditions are improved. Her future
inspection reports will be eagerly awaited. – Community
Care’s Back on Track campaign is calling for a reduction
in the number of children in custody and for improvements in the
youth justice system. See www.communitycare.co.uk/backontrack
Five practices on the YJB’s hitlist
- Children being forced to urinate in plastic bags as a result of
infrequent comfort breaks.
- Children being subjected to long and uncomfortable
- Children being escorted alongside adult prisoners.
- Children being escorted by staff who are inadequately trained
in child protection and unaware of their duties under the Children
- Children being carried in vehicles with no seatbelts.