Campaigners are urging the government to put an end to the routine strip searching of boys in custody, after an unannounced inspection of one institution showed a huge rise in strip searching and restraint.
The report, by the chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick, found the use of restraint against children at Ashfield young offender institution (YOI) near Bristol was “extremely high”, while strip searching was the norm rather than the exception.
The use of force had increased almost nine-fold in the space of a year, the report found, while in one month alone, 480 strip searches were conducted at the prison, despite no evidence that they led to the recovery of illicit items.
The majority of incidents, however, did not involve the use of full control and restraint, the report noted.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Routine strip searching of vulnerable boys is unjustified, cruel and abusive in itself.
“If they are to turn around the lives of the teenagers entrusted into their care, staff working with this challenging age group must be equipped with the skills needed to manage difficult behaviour effectively without recourse to punitive sanctions and physical force.”
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the use of restraint at Ashfield had “chilling echoes” of the death of 15-year-old Gareth Myatt. The teenager died while being restrained after disobeying staff instructions – the most frequent reason for restraint, according to staff records at Ashfield.
“Important safety issues have not been met and there were many incidents of strip searching children unnecessarily,” she said, adding: “This jail has a history of failing children and the public.”
Lyon said the report painted a “bleak, familiar picture of the children and teenagers we lock up”. Nearly a third of boys surveyed had previously been in care, while a third had emotional problems, mental health issues or drug addictions.
One in three boys received no visits at all while in custody, despite the importance of maintaining links with family, friends and, in some cases, professionals.
The routine strip searching of girls has already ceased, following a review by Baroness Corston.