“It gives you a lot of time to think and my thoughts aren’t always positive,” John tells his lawyer, Jude Lanchin, on the rare occasion that she gets access to the prison video link service. “I struggle to sleep,” he adds.
In the UK, teens and children aged 18 and younger are held in what the government refers to as secure children’s homes, secure training centers and young offender institutions. The lawyers we spoke to universally refer to such institutions as prisons.
A CNN crew was allowed to observe Lanchin’s call with her client and has changed his name due to UK reporting restrictions for ongoing criminal cases involving children.
“I get thirty minutes out a day and then apart from that I’m just in my cell, just thinking,” John says. “There’s a lot of time to think, and it messes with your head a little bit.”
The restrictions have been imposed by the UK government as part of the Covid-19 lockdown. Visits have been temporarily suspended and time outside of prison cells has been severely reduced, as part of broader measures to enforce social distancing in prisons due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to multiple lawyers and experts CNN has spoken to, these restrictions have left children like John in solitary confinement.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela rules, define solitary confinement as 22 hours a day or more without meaningful human contact.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice’s prison and probation service told CNN: “The decision to impose restrictions on daily life was taken on the basis of expert public health advice and has helped save lives, but we know this is difficult for children and that’s why mental health support and education continued throughout.”
“Video calls have also been increased, children have been given extra phone credit to keep in touch with their families and we have maximized in-room activities. We are now working to safely relax restrictions and reintroduce visits in the coming weeks.”
Impact on children’s mental health
Jude Lanchin has grown increasingly concerned about her client’s welfare. “There’s many times when I have phoned him and he has just sounded very, very low,” she recalls.
John, who was ordered to be detained while awaiting trial due the severity of the alleged offense, has been waiting for a trial that has been indefinitely postponed due to Covid-19. Still innocent until proven guilty, he has no idea how much longer he will have to wait.
Lanchin has requested the court grant him bail due to the severity of the conditions, but so far has been unsuccessful.
John is Black, and Lanchin believes institutionalized racism has affected his case. Rather than being treated as a child facing solitary confinement, Lanchin believes the courts have treated him as an adult who may pose a threat to society. “They’re not seen as children. They’re not seen as young people,” she explains. CNN asked the Ministry of Justice when the recommendations outlined in the Lammy Review to address racism in the criminal justice system would be implemented but did not receive a response to this question.
Campaigners are worried that the prolonged solitary confinement could have a long-lasting impact on children’s mental health. Lanchin says that John requested mental health support when he first entered prison, but only received it several months later.
“Many of the young people coming in are from Black and minority ethnic background and by definition […] they will be amongst the poorest in our country,” shadow justice secretary David Lammy told CNN. “Many of them will have experienced trauma in different aspects of their life. And many of them will have been pimped or abused by adults who have put them in this criminal setting.”
Minorities overrepresented in prisons
Government data on English and Welsh prisons reflects an overrepresentation of people of color and other ethnic minorities being locked up. They make up 27% of the overall prison population, according to government data from March 2020. And in the youth prison population, Blacks and other ethnic minorities make up more than half of the inmates, custody data from May 2020 shows. But the 2011 census shows Blacks, Asians and other ethnic minorities represent just 14% of the general population.
While the overall number of children in custody has fallen significantly in the past ten years, this decline has been less among the minority ethnic population, Tim Bateman, deputy chair of the National Association for Youth Justice, explains. “The level of representation depends on the background — it’s more pronounced among African and Caribbean children and mixed heritage,” he said. “It’s an absolutely shocking pattern.”
The disproportionate number of Black children and children from other ethnic minorities in custody and their worsening conditions during the Covid-19 lockdown are part of an ongoing debate on racial inequality in the country.
Following Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the UK over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities with a comment piece in the Daily Telegraph.
But Lammy, who penned a government-commissioned report in 2017 into the treatment of Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, dismissed the plan as a meaningless gesture, written on the back of a cigarette packet.
Lammy Review recommendations
In an interview with CNN, Lammy said he was “appalled” at the systemic use of prolonged solitary confinement for young people in prisons, where Black and other minority children are disproportionately represented.
“It’s deeply, deeply shocking and concerning to find out that young people in our own country are being treated in this horrendous way,” he said. “Coronavirus is a challenge for the system, but it is not a call for democratic countries like our own to abandon norms we have fought hard for in this country. It’s very, very disappointing and worrying that we’re treating young people in this way.”
In his report, the Labour MP made 35 specific recommendations to improve the justice and criminal system for minorities, including so-called “deferred prosecution,” which allows offenders who have had no more than one conviction, and who present a low risk to the public, to voluntarily agree to a rehabilitation program before entering a plea, as an alternative to prosecution.
The government responded to Lammy in February 2020, saying it had made progress on some of the comments included in the review, including recommending the “deferred prosecution” model and a commitment to publishing more and better data on race and ethnicity.
However, Lammy told CNN the government had been “very slow to implement my recommendations.”
“Our youth justice system has not been reformed since the early days of Tony Blair in which we made a commitment to reduce the number of young people in the youth justice system and in prison. And we managed to do that,” he said. “But what we did not reduce are the amount of Black and Minority Ethnic young people in the system. That has grown and grown and grown.”
CNN asked the Ministry of Justice when the recommendations outlined in the Lammy Review to address racism in the criminal justice system would be implemented but did not receive a response to this question.
John, the 16-year-old living in prison during lockdown, says the months of solitary confinement have caused his mental health to suffer.
“Before I say I’m very stable in that sense but now […] I can be fine one second then the next … I would say it’s deteriorating … honestly because I realize it’s myself, that’s what’s kind of the worrying part, like, I’m seeing myself. I can be fine one second and then I’ll think of something and then my whole mood just changes.”
According to multiple lawyers CNN has spoken to, John is not alone in feeling this way.
Laura Janes is the legal director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity that works with children in prison and has published a report that raises concerns about the “severe” regime children are being placed under due to Covid-19.
Janes has been receiving near daily calls from children in custody and has noticed a dramatic worsening in their conditions.
“Lots of them are awake all night and sleeping in the day, it’s very common thing that happens when you’re locked in a small space without any stimuli for a long time,” Janes tells CNN.
She believes the conditions are inhumane. “As a parent, if you were to lock your child in a bedroom or in a laundry room for 20 hours a day, I’m sure social services would absolutely justified in looking into that and taking serious action,” she says.
The legal system in the UK is divided up by region so these conditions only apply to prisons in England and Wales. CNN contacted the Scottish prison service and learned that children continued to spend most of their time out of their cells during lockdown, due to the small number of inmates.
Richard Stewart, a press officer for the Northern Ireland’s department of justice told CNN “an adjusted regime has been put in place which actively promotes social distancing,” and restricts movement with no mixing between children in other units. He added that there is no solitary confinement of children there.
Legal counsel restrictions
Lawyers tell CNN that Covid-19 restrictions have also prevented children from accessing their legal counsel.
For those with ongoing cases, this is especially troubling. Mel Stooks is a solicitor representing several children in English prisons. Despite the UK government saying it would install telephones in all cells, Stooks has several clients who claim not to have one. She tells CNN that the communication barriers are threatening children’s basic right to legal advice.
“I have not been able to have a single phone call with my client since he was remanded … five weeks ago.” Stooks tells CNN.
The Ministry of Justice said it would be providing extra telephones for inmates during Covid-19 in 55 jails but stopped short of saying the phones would be available for all inmates.
John’s conversation with his lawyer, Lanchin, is the first video call they have had. As the conversation ends, John becomes quiet, a hint of sadness creeping into his voice as he politely responds to Lanchin’s questions.
Lanchin reassures him: “I’ll be in touch next week anyway, on Monday, I’ll give you a call. Alright?”
“Alright.” John replies quietly.
“Take care, very, very nice to see you, finally,” Lanchin continues.
John responds: “Nice meeting […] you finally as well.”
The time is up and the call ends. John must return to his cell to spend further hours alone. Lanchin stares at her laptop in shock as John disappears from the screen.
“Blimey, he looks about 12. My god, he’s so young,” she says.