"The current state of affairs is dangerous, counterproductive and will inevitably end in tragedy unless urgent corrective action is taken."
This is the stark conclusion of the Chief Inspector of Prisons of child prisons in England and Wales, which was today published in his annual report. It is the most alarming warnings we have heard about children in prison.
The Chief Inspector concluded that there was not a single prison inspected in England and Wales where children are safe and that the speed of the decline has been "staggering". Violence is rising, increasing numbers of children are locked in isolation for 23 hours a day, conditions are deteriorating and significant numbers of children are simply too scared to leave their cells. Prisons have failed to punish their way out of the crisis, and, as set out in the report, have made the situation worse:
"There seems to be something of a vicious circle. Violence leads to a restrictive regime and security measures which in turn frustrate those being held there. We have seen regimes were boys take every meal alone in their cell, where they are locked up for excessive amounts of time, where they do not get enough exercise, education or training, and where there do not appear to be any credible plans to break the cycle of violence."
Behind each of these cell doors in each of these failing institutions is a child. The Howard League, which has the only dedicated legal team for children in prison England and Wales, recently secured a High Court ruling into the case of AB, who spent more than 100 days in isolation. The court declared this boy's isolation for certain periods and the denial of adequate education was unlawful. The court accepted that during the worst periods, when he had no educational provision at all, "the lack of mental and physical activity contributed to his frustration and so to his disruptive behaviour".
Troubled and damaged children cannot be helped in a fatally flawed system. The proposals to build new child prisons - so called 'secure schools' - are the wrong answer to the wrong question. Building more prisons only causes problems to grow; it does not solve them. They threaten repeating the mistakes of the past and expanding the number of children in prison.
The focus should instead be on investing in community solutions and closing child prisons. This could be achieved by addressing the over-representation of BME children, reducing the use of remand and scrapping needless, and harmful, short term sentences.
Dr Jerome Miller emptied Massachusetts' reformatories in the early 1970s and revolutionised America's youth justice system. As Robert D. Behn, a senior lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, wrote in 1976, Dr Miller "changed the political question from 'What do we do with these bad kids?' to 'What do we do with these bad institutions?' By focussing public attention on evils of the institutions, he elicited from the public the only logical conclusion: The institutions must be closed." Instead these children went to evidence based community treatment programmes, foster carers, or simply back to their parents. A study concluded that "Massachusetts reforms still realised impressive outcome improvements, reducing criminality, saving taxpayers money and minimising harm and disruption to young people's lives".
As evidence in today's report, and by decades of work by the Howard League, the youth justice system in England and Wales is fundamentally broken. It does not serve the children we incarcerate in violent, failing institutions. It does not serve the taxpayer. And it does not serve the communities they return to when they are released.
For the majority of children, the best possible thing is to keep them as far away from 'the system' as possible. The Howard League's work with the police is a prime example of this - the number of child arrests has fallen dramatically, which has led to huge reductions to the numbers of children in the youth justice system.
The evidence from Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons could not be clearer - the state is failing to its duty to protect children.
There is not a single prison in the country where a child is safe. As Dr Miller told the local politicians in the 1970s: "You can have the institutions; we are taking the kids."
Frances Crook is chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform