03 APR 2019

Speech on youth inmates: solitary confinement

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). She and I talked about this issue before the debate, so there will be a lot of overlap in our presentations. I am glad that she has interpreted the ​ title of the debate very widely. It talks about youth inmates, which includes not only children but young adults. I will say a little bit about that in a minute.

As well as the hon. Lady's Select Committee, the Justice Committee published a report, "The treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system", some time ago in 2016-17, because we were concerned about the effectiveness of the treatment of young adults in the justice system. We looked at the needs of young offenders, their characteristics and the effective ways of working with them. We also went on a visit—this was in the days when Select Committees could go on international visits—to New York and Boston. Hon. Members may view the American system of governance as much stricter and tougher than ours. I could not disagree more. We found a much more liberal approach to the situation, with children treated kindly and efficiently, which had an enormous impact on their rehabilitation.

Gregory Campbell

Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, although I fully accept his experience on his visit to that part of the United States, does he agree that, given the complexity of its judicial system, there may well be rapid and significant variations from state to state in the United States of America?

John Howell

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. However, we chose New York because it has some of the toughest criminals. It was interesting to see how the situation was dealt with in that sort of tough environment. As I said, we found a very liberal approach.

Back here, we interviewed the parents of people who had been to youth offender institutes or prison, and I have to say that the feedback was utterly tragic. The personal circumstances of the individuals there had to be heard to be believed. We have to do all that we can to stop those sorts of occurrences. We looked at a wide range of ages—from 10 to 24—encompassing everything that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle talked about, and one thing we found was that men and boys account for a disproportionate number of people going through the criminal justice system. There is something about men and boys that needs to be tackled, and seriously.

One thing we looked at was the neuroscience involved—neuroscience has become a very trendy subject these days. A lot of work has been done on how the brain develops and matures. The evidence we heard showed that the brain develops over a much longer period, and that what we would generally describe as maturity is the last thing to develop. The hon. Lady may have experienced that with some of the children she used to teach. I hope that rings a bell with her.

It was also interesting that, as people got nearer to 18, their risk of reoffending actually increased, not decreased; there was something about reaching that age that created much more turbulence for the individuals. We all ought to look very carefully at how solitary confinement or segregation is imposed on people in that situation, because it is not something that immediately jumps out. In fact, there is strong evidence that involvement with the criminal justice system actually hinders the development of boys and men.

We need to do a risk assessment of people who are segregated or put into solitary confinement, and I will give a few examples of the stunning evidence as to why. ​ Learning disability among young people in the general population is between 2% and 4%, but among those in custody it is 23% to 32%—an enormous increase. Communications impairment in young people in the country is between 5% and 7%, but for those in custody it is 60% to 90%—almost all the people there have a communication difficulty. Those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are 1.7% to 9% of the general population, going up to 12% of those in custody, while those with autistic spectrum disorder run at a maximum of 1.2% of the general population, going up to 15% of people in custody.

We are dealing with a group of people who are, by any stretch of the imagination, vulnerable and who tend to need a risk assessment in order to assess how they are doing. I know that it has already been mentioned, but the number of people in youth custody who have already been in statutory care is running at two thirds—an enormous number. Again, that suggests that we are dealing with a very vulnerable population.

To produce the report, we went to the young offenders institution at Aylesbury, where we found that segregation was used to reduce movements among young people. However, staff said that it was used when there was a risk of gang violence. Dealing with gangs in that young offenders institution was one of the biggest tasks for staff. We asked the young people there whether they would like to be in a young offenders institution or a prison—many there at the time had been in both—and they said that the change in the justice system when going from a youth institution to an adult institution was like dropping off a cliff face. It is very important to bear that in mind, because it goes back to how they are treated in relation to solitary confinement.

The Justice Committee interviewed, and I have subsequently spoken to, Lord Harris of Haringey, who produced a very good review that looked at young people detained in cells for a long period. He found there might be occasions when it was to the benefit of the individual young person to be confined to their cell. If they were being threatened, it was better to put them in their cell. However, it needs a risk assessment of their mental health and their ability to function there. Whatever the Minister says, in my experience and that of the Committee, that does not happen routinely enough, and that is a big lack in the system.

I will quote one of the witnesses we interviewed, Dr Gooch from Birmingham Law School:

"It is the decisions that are made about how you use segregation and how you use adjudications, which are the disciplinary hearings within the prison. It is the values that you instil about where the boundaries are and what is appropriate behaviour. When you talk about grip, it is not about punitiveness. It is understanding when to lock down and when to use your security measures to their full potential".

That sort of understanding of the situation suggests there needs to be much greater flexibility in the youth justice system.

I want to pick up on one last point: the question of purposeful activity, which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle also mentioned. I have a strong view that we need to instil as much purposeful activity as possible, whether it is in the adult or the youth section of the criminal justice system. On a former Justice Committee, I went to a prison in Denmark where the prisoners, who had a wide range of ages, cooked their own food. For safety's sake, the knives were chained to ​ the wall. Nevertheless, the very fact that they were able to cook their own food had a big impact on their ability to be rehabilitated. It made a great impression on me and when I came back I mentioned it to the then Secretary of State, and there are prisons where that happens now in the UK. Instilling purposeful activity into young people through education and skills training or whatever is absolutely essential. We need to keep that going if we are to tackle the problem.

I know the Minister will say that this situation never happens—he is laughing at me now—but that when it does happen a risk assessment is done. All I am saying is that in the Justice Committee's experience, that did not happen. It is not commonplace for it to happen all the time in every case. Given the history that I have given of the differences between the mental illnesses that the general population of young people have and that those in prison have, it needs to happen.

Back to all posts