The government and the Youth Justice Board are braced for criticisms over the use of restraint on children with the start of the inquest into Gareth Myatt’s death this week. Helen McCormack reports
The inquest into 15-year-old Gareth Myatt’s death gets under way this week and campaigners are hoping the government will be called to account for its policies on restraint on children in custody.
Three prison officers had used a restraint technique called the seated double embrace on Myatt when he died in April 2004 at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre (STC), Warwickshire.
Following his death, the technique, which involves securing the young person in a hold while on a chair or bed, was removed from use by the Youth Justice Board on the advice of the police.
The charity Inquest believes that evidence on the circumstances surrounding Myatt’s death will pose key questions over “how the restraint [techniques] used were originally approved” and received the sanction of both ministers and the board.
There will then be little let up before the inquest into the suicide of Adam Rickwood, who at 14 was the youngest person to die in custody in the UK, begins in April.
Rickwood was found hung in his room in Hassockfield STC, near Durham, in August 2004. The coroner, and jury, will examine allegations that he was restrained in the hours leading up to his death.
In private, observers note that the YJB, already dealing with the fallout from the resignation of its chair Rod Morgan, appears uncomfortable about the focus the inquests could place on its restraint record.
Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, peers have recently tabled about 50 questions requesting specific information on the use of restraint. Many have been tabled by the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile, who led an independent inquiry into the use of restraint techniques, stripsearching and segregation in STCs, young offender institutions (YOIs) and secure children’s homes following Myatt’s death.
The report, commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform and published last February, painted a picture of inconsistent monitoring of the use of restraint.
Five recommendations on restraint were made to the YJB. These included a call for one certified set of techniques to be used across the youth justice estate but this was rejected because of the “widely divergent” young people within it.
There are several sets of techniques in use across the youth justice estate such as control and restraint and physical control in care (see restraint methods).
Much of the board’s difficulty with the behaviour management systems appears to lie in its commissioner role – as Kevin Venosi, head of secure commissioning at the YJB, puts it, the board does not “own” behaviour management – its providers do.
He says he would like to see the prison service move away from the control and restraint set of techniques and says that it is a “key policy issue that it [the prison service] will need to address”. He emphasises the demands of managing larger populations faced by staff in YOIs but says the board continues to work with them to see “if there are alternatives to control and restraint”.
To some extent, a clear picture of the exact way in which restraint is used across the estate, on whom and why is only just emerging.
The Carlile inquiry exposed “patchy” monitoring of inmates’ injuries and claimed there was a complete lack of data on the use of restraint on ethnic minorities.
Venosi recognises the problems created by the existence of three different monitoring systems across the youth justice sector. One common system has now been agreed upon and will be implemented from April, which will include monitoring race and gender.
“For the first time we will be able to properly collect data and analyse themes contained within that data. We haven’t been able to before. What we are trying to do is actually analyse what’s going on,” he says.
The inquiry claimed information that it obtained from providers suggested one in five applications of restraint techniques resulted in an injury to a child or staff member. Figures from July-September 2006, the latest available, show there was 734 restraints recorded across the four STCs in England but no reports of non-accidental injuries.
Not afraid to complain
Carlile emphasises the need to help ensure that vulnerable children are not afraid to complain and know how to do so.
All YOIs and STCs have an advocacy system for residents. Some secure children’s homes go further. In Sutton Place, Hull, an independent children’s rights service gets in contact with anyone who has been restrained within 48 hours to discuss concerns and forward them to children’s services if necessary. Manager of the home, Roy Walker. says: “It helps to have a system where the children can be heard but that is arm’s length from us.”
There has been little research on the impact of using restraint in the youth justice secure estate, according to Di Hart, principal officer for youth justice at the National Children’s Bureau. She carried out a review of restraint in the estate at the request of the YJB in 2003, which raised concerns over the low levels of complaints made in YOIs.
Although Hart says there has been some progress since then, she adds: “There needs to be more thought given to the psychological impact and how medically vulnerable the young person might be to injury.”
One year on, Carlile is now looking at how many times strip searches involve restraint.
Venosi admits the area requires more attention but he rejects the suggestion that restraint frequently occurs alongside strip searches. He says restraint should only be used as a “last resort” when the person is at risk of harm to themselves or others.
He adds that strip searches are not one of the “flash points” for disruption which may require restraint, and that instead restraint is more likely to occur at particular times during young people’s routines, such as meal times and bed times.
But the first comprehensive figures on searches in the youth justice estate, released this month, show a significant number of restraint incidents occurred alongside strip searches.
A total of 146 strip searches were carried out as part of a restraint between November 2005 and October 2006 at nine of 12 YOIs in England.
April will bring further challenges to the youth justice system when Ofsted takes over the children’s functions of the Commission for Social Care Inspection, which has a remit to inspect STCs and secure children’s homes. Whether the merger will cast a different light on the centres and homes remains to be seen.
There are said to be concerns within CSCI that although its youth custody inspectorate unit will move over to Ofsted, it will disbanded after its first year of service, with responsibility passing on to general inspector teams.
One secure children’s home worker aware of the concerns asks how inspection staff who do not know how secure children’s homes work can “come in and challenge what we are doing”? An Ofsted spokesperson denied this was the case.
A parliamentary debate on children in custody is taking place next week. Carlile is keeping up the pressure and says he hopes to receive an “informed and accurate ministerial response” on changes made to the treatment of such children since the publication of his report.
With Myatt and Rickwood’s inquests likely to attract a lot of attention, their families may now get the answers they have long been waiting for.
Restraint methods (back)
Currently, a young person will be exposed to different methods according to where he or she is sent.
● In secure training centres, a set of methods called physical control in care is used. This includes “non-pain compliant” techniques which include distraction techniques on the nose, thumb and ribs.
● In YOIs, a “pain compliant” set of techniques, entitled control and restraint, is used.
● Secure children’s homes use a mixture of methods, some of which are “non-pain compliant” versions of control and restraint techniques.