The UK government is removing all children from a troubled jail for youths run by an American company after some were locked in their rooms for more than 23 hours a day.
Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, said US-based contractor MTC had failed to fix serious failings at Rainsbrook secure training centre despite being ordered to six months ago.
Ministers stepped in after it emerged children were being confined for more than 23 hours a day during the coronavirus pandemic, at the site near Rugby in Warwickshire.
New arrivals were locked in their bedrooms for 14 days straight with only half an hour per day outside, according to an official report in October last year. Government inspectors said there was no reason for this practice, which was “tantamount to solitary confinement”.
In December, Ofsted, HM Inspectorate of Prisons and the Care Quality Commission issued a rare urgent notification to Mr Buckland over the “continued poor care and leadership” at the site, amid concerns vulnerable children were being subjected to a “bleak regime”.
At that time inspectors found little progress had been made, despite assurances two months earlier that immediate action would be taken. The government ordered a comprehensive overhaul the following month, January 2021.
Now, a preliminary Ofsted report has rated Rainsbrook “inadequate”, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said. Though MTC has addressed the time children spend out of their rooms, the department said not enough had been done since January to avoid sanction.
The MoJ is now trying to arrange alternative accommodation for 33 children currently at Rainsbrook, which has capacity for 87 12-to-17-year-olds. Children there are serving custodial sentences or on remand from the courts, but are deemed too vulnerable to be held at a young offenders institution.
Taking Rainsbrook under state control is one of the options now being considered, the MoJ confirmed on Wednesday. Another is to shut down the centre and use it for something else.
Mr Buckland said: “Six months ago, I demanded that MTC take immediate action to fix the very serious failings at Rainsbrook. They have failed to deliver and I have been left with no choice but to ask that all children are moved elsewhere as soon as possible.
“This move will help protect the public by ensuring often vulnerable children get the support they need to turn their lives around.”
Negotiations about the future of the contract with MTC are ongoing.
MTC’s managing director, Ian Mulholland, who took over the role in January and was not in charge at the time of the inspections, previously apologised “unreservedly” for the “very obvious failings” but said the company was trying to make the jail better.
Mr Mulholland told MPs children had been locked up for 23 and a half hours per day to protect them from Covid-19, but conceded it was “the wrong thing” to have done.
According to a Justice Committee report from March this year, MTC runs a number of prisons in the US in addition to Rainsbrook. It won a five-year contract worth £50.4m to oversee the Warwickshire location in May 2016, before which it was the responsibility of G4S.
The documents said that even though “concerns had previously been raised about the quality of services at Rainsbrook [and] those concerns have continued during MTC’s period as contractor at every inspection since 2016”, the MoJ decided in 2020 to extend MTC’s contract until 2023.
MPs found oversight of Rainsbrook by the MoJ had been lacking, and that the “arms-length” relationship between it and MTC had failed “to deliver basic standards of care to vulnerable children”.
When December’s urgent notice was issued, Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Rainsbrook has been appalling for years and it should be closed. It is shocking that a private company is profiting from treating children so badly.”
An MTC spokesperson said on Wednesday: “The welfare of the children we look after at Rainsbrook secure training centre is our priority and in partnership with the MoJ, we have worked hard to address Ofsted’s recommendations following its inspection in December 2020.
“Given the previous positive assessments, including Ofsted’s follow-up visit in January, we were very surprised to receive Ofsted’s feedback at the end of last week’s inspection.
“We have a number of concerns about their approach and ultimately the conclusions they have reached. We plan to vigorously challenge this as we go through the fact-checking process. Despite repeated requests, the information that sits behind Ofsted’s assessment has still not been shared with us, raising further concerns about their approach.
“We will work constructively and collaboratively with the MoJ as Rainsbrook’s future is reviewed in the coming days and weeks.”
Additional reporting by Press Association