The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is being urged to consider taking over a privately-run youth jail, after Government ministers heard that children were being kept in conditions likened to “solitary confinement”.
The Commons Justice Committee slammed the promises made by US-based contractor MTC to improve conditions at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre in Warwickshire as “worth less than the paper they are written on”.
In a report published on Monday, the committee said it was not confident in MTC’s ability to deliver recommendations repeatedly made over a period of years by inspectors.
In December, Ofsted, the Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) issued a rare urgent notification to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland over the “continued poor care and leadership” at the site near Rugby, amid concerns that vulnerable children were being subjected to a “bleak regime”.
Inspectors found little progress had been made, despite assurances that immediate action would be taken two months earlier after concerns that newly admitted children, some as young as 15, were being locked in their bedrooms for 14 days and only allowed out for 30 minutes a day.
The inspectors said this was “tantamount to solitary confinement” and “highly likely to be damaging to children’s emotional and physical wellbeing”, the committee report highlighted.
It said inspectors found one boy was only allowed out of his room for a total of four hours over a fortnight.
The committee said senior Rainsbrook management and MoJ staff working there were unaware of these conditions, despite having offices just two minutes’ walk from the cells.
It recommended that MTC and the youth custody service branch of the MoJ report to it by June 2021, setting out in detail what progress had been made.
If substantial improvements have not been made by then, the MoJ should consider taking Rainsbrook “back in house”, it said.
Committee members also questioned why the MoJ has given MTC two more years to run the centre despite its poor performance in managing the five-year, £50.4 million contract.
Committee chairman Sir Bob Neill said: “The children held at places like Rainsbrook have committed serious crimes and are not always easy to care for or handle. We know that. But these are children – and some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
“They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It is clear this was not happening, and that is unacceptable in the extreme.
“The experience of the inspectors over the past year has shown that some of the promises made by MTC are worth less than the paper they are written on.
“This, too, is unacceptable. But even worse, in a way, is that the competent public authorities – from the Ministry of Justice down – have failed in their oversight of this private contractor.”
MTC said it accepted and is working with the MoJ to address all of the recommendations made by inspectors, and that a new leadership team and new education provider have been put in place.
An MTC spokesperson said: “Most significantly, our new permanent director, a youth custody specialist whose appointment was welcomed by the committee, joins the centre this week.
“At a follow-up assessment in January, inspectors reported that they could now see “meaningful” change.
“We are committed over the coming months to make the changes we all want to see at Rainsbrook STC, so it becomes a centre that supports children to reach their potential.”
A youth custody service spokesman from the MoJ said: “We worked closely with MTC to take immediate action at Rainsbrook and, while there is more to be done, Ofsted said it is showing ‘early signs of improvement’.
“We also set out a detailed action plan to address concerns in the long term.
“Since then, a new director has been appointed, refurbishment is under way, and better scrutiny is in place.”
It comes after Mr Buckland told the committee on March 9 that a coronavirus outbreak at the site had “complicated matters”, but that Covid-19 “was not an excuse”.
He said the purpose of public health measures put in place had been “misunderstood” which “led to the lock-up and we all agree that was unacceptable”.
Describing the problem as a “significant” and “unacceptable failure”, Mr Buckland said he would be making sure that MTC is held to account and this had been a “system issue rather than an individual issue”.
Rainsbrook can hold up to 87 children aged 12 to 17, who are serving a custodial sentence or on remand from the courts.
MTC’s managing director, Ian Mulholland, who took over the role in January and was not in charge at the time of the inspections, apologised “unreservedly” to the committee and expressed “deep regret” for the “very obvious failings”.
He said he will be focusing on addressing the problems, particularly “longstanding culture issues”, adding that there have already been some improvements at the centre.