Campaigners and inspectors unite over transportation of children

    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
    arrangements.

    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
    report.

    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
    prisoners.”

    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
    child.

    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
    establishment.

    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
    their deadlines.

    Unmonitored journeys
    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
    snacks.

    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
    shocking” treatment.

    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
    long.”

    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
    be negotiated.

    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.

    Special training
    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
    direction.

    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
    suicide.”

    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
      journeys.
    • 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
      Act.
    • Children being carried in vehicles with no seatbelts.

    More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.