'Just 15 minutes out every day': a teenage prisoner's life during Covid

Harriet Grant
·3-min read

For five months, 16-year-old Sean* spent around 23 hours a day in his cell. He tried to get through the time by doing puzzles and calling his lawyer, asking her again and again to help him get bail.

When he arrived at the secure training centre (STC) it was already in lockdown. He was just 15. “I had to go into total isolation for the first two weeks, just 15 minutes out every day. It was my first time in custody and at first I thought this is OK, it’s a chance to slow things down. But after two weeks it began to affect me. You couldn’t do anything. I could hear voices calling on the wing, but I only saw the guard.”

International guidance says that solitary confinement, – particularly prolonged periods of more than two weeks – is known to have a negative impact on health and wellbeing.

Sean spent most of his five months locked up nearly all the time. “For three or four months it was in the cell 23 hours a day. By the last month I was there I got about an hour of education as well as 45 minutes out,” he said.

I was very concerned about his mental health. Every time I called he sounded very depressed

Jude Lanchin, solicitor

His lawyer, Jude Lanchin of Bindmans Solicitors, called him frequently. “I wanted to check he was OK. I was very concerned about his mental health. Every time I called he sounded very depressed,” she said. “Sean was living in care before he went into custody, he’s vulnerable. That’s why he was sent to a centre that usually offers 25 hours of education each week and where the young people are out of their cell for 14 hours a day. He also suffered from losing family visits, not seeing his mum or brother for months.”

Sean asked for help with his mental health as soon as he arrived, but was only able to speak with a professional after several months, despite repeated requests. All other face to face services stopped. The only educational provision was a worksheet put through the door. He tried to keep himself going but it was hard. “At the beginning I couldn’t be motivated to exercise but I made myself do it. I felt very low, time really dragged,” he said.

Related: UK Covid policy for children in detention 'cruel and inhumane', says UN expert

Now he is on bail and living in specialist support accommodation, Sean is allowed out for a few hours each day. But a strange lethargy has kept him in his room for most of the time since he was released. “I thought it’s all I would want but now I’m here I don’t want to go out.”

He faces a long wait for his trial next year as, like many others, it has been delayed by the huge backlog of court cases caused by Covid.

Lanchin is concerned that the months Sean spent in solitary confinement have badly affected him. “His social worker is worried too. A boy getting out of custody would usually want to be out and about as much as possible, but he’s not going out. Something’s wrong.”

The Ministry of Justice was contacted for comment, and said that as Sean had chosen to remain anonymous it could not look into his individual claims.

The MoJ added that in room learning took place in lockdown as well as increased video calls to families. It said STCs along with Young Offender Institutions have recently moved to a stage that allows face to face education, professional visits, social visits and time in the open air.

*Name changed to protect anonymity