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Chief Inspector of Prisons demands urgent action after finding boys kept in solitary confinement in Kent YOI

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons has issued an Urgent Notification to the Secretary of State for Justice, demanding immediate action to improve the conditions in which children are being held at an institution in Kent.

An inspection of a HMYOI Cookham Wood in April 2023 found that a quarter of the boys were being held in solitary confinement for extended periods, including two for more than 100 days, as a means of managing conflict between children. Records showed that it was not unusual for these boys to not come out of their cells for days on end, with no meaningful human interaction, education or other intervention. At the time of the inspection, 90% of children were subjected to ‘keep aparts’ meaning they were not allowed to mix with some of their peers, and staff were managing 583 individual conflicts in a population of 77 children.

Children told inspectors they felt unsafe, and were increasingly resorting to carrying weapons, many of which were made from metal which boys had scavenged from equipment in their cells, including kettles, in a bid to protect themselves. More than 200 weapons had been recovered in the six months preceding the inspection, despite inadequate searching procedures.

Cookham Wood was in a poor overall condition, with dirty living units and broken equipment. Prison staff were exhausted, with significant shortfalls on wings, and, while many clearly cared about the children, they felt unsupported by senior managers and had given up hope that improvement was possible. Four-hundred-and-fifty staff were employed at Cookham Wood, including 44 directly employed managers, of whom 24 were senior leaders. The fact that such rich resources were delivering this unacceptable service for just 77 children indicated that much of it was currently wasted, underused or in need of reorganisation to improve outcomes at the site.

The findings of this inspection represented the culmination of a steady decline in standards documented in inspections since 2016 that cannot be allowed to continue.

Many of these children have committed serious crimes and have rightly been detained. Nevertheless, they are still children, many of whom have come from very difficult backgrounds. They ought to be receiving education and support to make better choices in the future, supporting their rehabilitation and growth into adulthood so they leave custody in a better position than they entered it. We spoke to boys who’d had almost no human contact at all in days, and who had resorted to trying to stick up photos of home with toothpaste on the walls of the tiny cells that became their whole world. Such treatment of children is appalling. This is a scandal and it cannot be allowed to continue.

Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

The Urgent Notification was invoked on Wednesday 26 April 2023, following an inspection of HMYOI Cookham Wood which concluded the previous week. The Secretary of State for Justice must reply within 28 days of the publication of the letter setting out a plan for improvement.

Notes to editors

  1. HMYOI Cookham Wood is a young offender institution in Kent. At the time of the inspection, it held 77 boys.
  2. The inspection took place between 4 and 20 April 2023.
  3. HM Inspectorate of Prisons is an independent inspectorate, inspecting places of detention to report on conditions and treatment and promote positive outcomes for those detained and the public.
  4. The Urgent Notification process was introduced in 2017. Since then it has been invoked 12 times, including this occasion. This is the fifth time it has been invoked for an institution holding children.
  5. An Urgent Notification is not an inspection. It is a process that we invoke if we are particularly concerned about outcomes for detainees. It requires us to write to the Secretary of State for Justice within seven calendar days of completing an inspection setting out our concerns. We also tell the governor of the prison that we are doing so. The Secretary of State then has 28 days from the publication of the letter to reply to us setting out an action plan of improvement, which is Friday 26 May 2023. Find out more about Urgent Notifications.
  6. Read the Urgent Notification issued for Cookham Wood.
  7. Findings from previous inspections of Cookham Wood can be seen below:
Inspection yearSafetyCarePurposeful activityResettlement
2016Not sufficiently goodGoodReasonably goodReasonably good
2017Not sufficiently goodReasonably goodNot sufficiently goodNot sufficiently good
2018Not sufficiently goodReasonably goodNot sufficiently goodNot sufficiently good
2019Not sufficiently goodNot sufficiently goodNot sufficiently goodNot sufficiently good
2021Not sufficiently goodNot sufficiently goodPoorNot sufficiently good
2023PoorNot sufficiently goodPoorNot sufficiently good
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