Children in custody are subjected to treatment that would result in child protection investigations and criminal charges in any other setting, an inquiry reveals this week.
The inquiry, by the Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Carlile QC, finds that children are regularly put through “demeaning and dehumanising” strip-searching, painful physical restraint and long periods of isolation.
The inquiry, published by the Howard League for Penal Reform, calls for “immediate and independent” scrutiny of every incident of restraint.
It also urges for an end to the use of prison segregation units and solitary confinement for children.
Launching the report, Lord Carlile said: “The rule of law and protection of human rights should apply to all children equally, regardless of whether they are detained in custody or in the community. We found that some of the treatment children in custody experience would in another setting be considered abusive and could trigger a child protection investigation.
“If children in custody are expected to learn to behave well, they have to be treated well and the staff and various authorities have to set the very highest standards. My team of expert advisers shared my shock at some of the practices we witnessed.”
The report calls for police and Crown Prosecution Service to be more willing to consider charging and prosecuting staff and companies running penal institutions holding children in cases of malpractice.
The inquiry was established after Gareth Myatt, a 15-year-old young offender, died after being restrained by staff at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre near Rugby, in April 2004.
Gareth lost consciousness after being held in a “double-seated embrace” restraint that had been approved by the Youth Justice Board. It has since been withdrawn from use.
“If you don’t go to your room, they press the red button on radio and people come. Loads of them – at least 10…they restrain you. They take everything out of your room…they lock your door so you can’t go in the bathroom, and they take your curtains. Someone’s got your arm and head down… it makes you want to struggle…it
The inquiry highlights the words of a young offender in a secure training centre, describing his experience of being restrained.
According to figures given to the inquiry by the Youth Justice Board, restraint was used 7,020 times on young people in secure training centres between January 2004 and August 2005.
It was used 5,133 times on juveniles in young offender institutions between January 2004 and September 2005, and 3, 359 times in eight secure children’s homes between January 2004 and October 2005.
One case submitted to the inquiry alleges that some staff would “bait” children into situations that would result in restraint for their own gratification.
Lord Carlile’s report says: “Taking into consideration the revelations concerning some care homes and child abuse over the past few years, it would be suprising if some staff were not working in the closed environment of custodial centres holding children for dubious reasons.”
The inquiry also calls for a ban on the use of handcuffs to restrain young people.
It suggests that handcuffs are being used in secure training centres following the banning of the “double seated embrace” restraint that was used on Gareth Myatt.
The inquiry found that handcuffs were used on children 29 times in Hassockfield from April to September 2005 and 17 Oakhill STC during the same period. It was also told that handcuffs were being used in Rainsbrook but was given no evidence to support this allegation.
The inquiry also raises concerns over a “paucity” of information and variable quality of recording restraints – particularly on young people from ethnic minorities.
Inquiry, and “patchy” recording of injuries.
But it points to evidence suggesting that up to one in five restraints resulted in injury either to the child or staff member involved.
In one case submitted to the inquiry, a young offender alleged that he had seen children with “black eyes” following restraints and claimed he had witnesses a member of staff head-butting a boy during a restraint.
The inquiry finds that strip-searching is “demeaning and dehumanising” for many young people in custody.
It highlights one case where a 16-year-old girl who was being strip-searched had her sanitary pad, which was “full of blood,” examined in front of her. She was not given a clean pad to wear afterwards.
The inquiry claims there was “no substantial evidence” from any of the establishments that strip searching was carried out for security reasons. The main finds after searching were cigarettes rather than drugs or weapons.
Statistics supplied to the inquiry by one secure training centre reveal that more than 1,500 searches were carried out in an 18-month period.
The inquiry slams segregation units in prisons, describing them as “little more than bare, dark and dank cells which in effect were inducements to suicide,” where children can be held for days or weeks at a time.
It finds that solitary confinement was used 2,329 times between January 2004 and June 2005 across two young offender institutions, one secure training centre and three local authority secure children’s homes.
Serious concern was raised over an isolation cell in one young offender institution which was bare except for a raised concrete plinth for a bed.
Assaults by staff
The inquiry finds that even when allegations of assaults by staff on children are reported to the police, prosecutions “rarely” result.
In one case in a local authority secure children’s home four assaults had been reported to police in the previous year, including one case where a child had the “imprint of a footprint” on his back, but no charges had been brought.
Pauline Campbell, a prison reform campaigner whose daughter died aged 18 while being held in a young offender institution at Styal Prison, says the report should be a “wake-up call” for the government.
“It is inconceivable that vulnerable children are subjected to degrading and inhumane treatment while in the care of the state, such as infliction of pain, handcuffing, and stripping children during searches.
“Sadly, I am not surprised by any of the findings, as my daughter Sarah, 18, was sent to a young offender institution and isolated on the segregation block, with sensory deprivation – no radio, no TV, and no-one to talk to. She collapsed, dying, the following day, and was carried unconscious out of Styal.
“Three years after her death, there is still no formal acceptance by the Home Office that they have a responsibility for Sarah’s death. I call on the government to end immediately the imprisonment of children, because it is barbaric.”
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health calls for restraint only to be used as a “last resort.”
A spokesperson says: “We agree that some of the procedures currently used are unacceptable in their use of pain to bring about compliance.
“We recognise that young people who are in custody can behave in an extremely challenging way and that the rights and safety of any one individual must be balanced against the rights and safety of others. However, using forced restraint and strip-searching must be a last resort, and must never be gratuitous.”
We urge the government and the Youth Justice Board to ensure that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is seen as the bedrock for the management of children and young people in custody, and that a comprehensive approach is taken.”
Rod Morgan, chair of the Youth Justice Board, supports the report’s findings and says the YJB will consider each recommendation in detail.
He admits that more needs to be done to monitor restraint, pointing to the difficulties of analysing records of incidents as different recording methods are used across establishments.
“We have inherited an infrastructure that is that is diverse and methods of recording restraints vary across establishments, so when looking at statistics it’s hard to see exactly what they represent,” he says.
“The apparently alarming number of incidents recorded must be juxtaposed with the question of what is actually meant by restraint or injury as definitions vary. The YJB is currently engaged in work to look at developing a more consistent recording system”
Morgan admits that the use of handcuffs is occurring “in extreme situations” where staff say they have no other methods of controlling a young person’s behaviour.
“Whatever code of practice is laid down over the minimum use of force, there will always be occasions where circumstances are such that staff are going to step outside the norm,” he says.
“We will consider the inquiry’s recommendation to end the use of handcuffs and analyse the circumstances in which they are being used. Staff must be trained to have confidence in handling difficult behaviour without resorting to this measure.”
Morgan also concurs with the inquiry’s findings on the use of segregation cells.
“We are not happy with the use of segregation cells and if we could start from scratch they would not be there – this is also a view shared by many prison governors,” he says.
“In extreme circumstances, where a young person is out of control and at risk of harming themselves or people around them, there must be some sort of segregation to allow them to cool off, but time out should be for a minimum period and this needs to be monitored closely.”
Morgan also raises concerns over the “reluctance” of police to get involved over allegations of assault in custody, but says he hopes the introduction of social workers and advocates will help young people.
“It is often a case of one person’s word against another, with no witnesses. It’s very difficult terrain. That’s why we have put social workers and advocates in place to give children a voice, but more needs to be done to ensure that children come forward with their concerns.
“Whenever there is an incident of restraint there must be a clear debrief about what happened and why. Staff need to listen closely to what children are saying.”
Morgan slams the case of staff allegedly using physical restraint for their own gratification as “totally unacceptable” and says that “rigorous action” would be taken if any other similar cases came to light.
He also points to the need to increase staff training in managing difficult behaviour, and says the YJB is engaged in looking at alternative methods of restraint that would reduce pain.
But he argues that many children with behavioural disorders and acute mental health problems – estimated to make up around half of the custodial population – should not be in custody in the first place: “You cannot expect acutely disturbed children to be managed by staff who are not equipped to deal with their problems.”
A independent inquiry into physical restraint, solitary confinement and forcible strip-searching of children in prisons, secure training centres and local authority secure children’s homes, from www.howardleague.org