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Wednesday, 17 April, 2002, 01:09 GMT 02:09 UK
Legal bid to protect jailed youths
Children are in danger in prisons, the charity says
A prison reform charity is launching a legal bid to improve the way 15 to 17 year olds are treated in jail.

The Howard League for Penal Reform is challenging the government's decision to exclude prisons from the provisions of the Children's Act.

The charity says when teenagers are sent to prison - mainly young offender institutions - they are highly vulnerable.

The law which took away their freedom should also protect them when they are in need

Frances Crook
Howard League

Studies suggest many are at risk of bullying, assault and self-harm.

Over the last decade, 18 young prisoners have killed themselves.

Director Frances Crook said children in jail have been "subjected to significant harm" and were in need of protection.

"Children behind bars are highly vulnerable, because they cannot run away from fear or unhappiness and have no choice in whom to turn to for help.

"The law, which took away their freedom, should also protect them when they are in need."

Remand powers

There are currently 2,398 juveniles in prison.

But although the welfare of young people is safeguarded under the terms of the 1989 Children Act, prisons are exempt.

The Howard League will ask the High Court on Wednesday to review the Act - to ensure that it applies to 15 to 17 year old inmates.

This legal move has assumed extra significance, following Home Secretary David Blunkett's decision announced on Tuesday to granting courts greater powers to remand young offenders in custody.

'Abuse by staff'

The government says the prison authorities already maintain a high level of care for young people - even though they're not legally-bound to do so.

But the charity claims juveniles suffer abuse at the hands of prison staff.

According to its figures, between April 2000 and this January staff in prisons used force on juveniles 3,620 times and 296 children were injured.

Isolation has been used as punishment 4,437 times since April 2000.

"If you locked a 15-year-old in the bathroom for three weeks, and only allowed them out for one hour a day, and didn't let them speak to anyone, or let them have a radio or TV, you would probably be up in court for child abuse," said Ms Crook.

"Yet that is the sort of treatment afforded them in prisons on a terrifying scale."

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