Shine A Light

15 things I’ve learned about child prisons since the death of Gareth Myatt

Gareth Myatt died 15 years ago today after being restrained by G4S prison guards. Carolyne Willow shares some of what she’s learned investigating the abuse and neglect of children in state care.

CarolyneWillow 2017 photo.jpg
Carolyne Willow
19 April 2019

Gareth Paul Myatt loved riding his bike, watching South Park and the Simpsons and playing chess. He was academically able. Racist bullying in his earlier years contributed to later struggles with his identity. Between the ages of 11 and 14, he lived in care on five separate occasions — three times in a children’s home and twice with foster carers. By the end of 2003, Gareth was receiving no education at all.

(Warning: this article refers to child abuse and child suicide).

On 16 April 2004, at the age of 15, Gareth was sentenced to custody for breaching a community order, assaulting a member of staff in his children’s home and stealing a bottle of beer. He was admitted to Rainsbrook secure training centre, a child prison in Northamptonshire then run by the international security company G4S.

That was a Friday. The following Monday, 19 April, Gareth refused to clean a sandwich toaster; another child willingly did so instead. An officer, David Beadnall, ordered Gareth to his cell, then started to remove his possessions. When Beadnall took a piece of paper containing his mum’s new mobile phone number, Gareth was said to raise his fist. With the assistance of two other officers, Beadnall (6 feet tall and weighing 14 stone) held Gareth down in what was called the ‘seated double embrace’ restraint position. The officers dismissed Gareth’s cries that he couldn’t breathe; he lost consciousness and was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. A judge was later to write:

“Among the signs of distress which Gareth manifested during the critical seven minutes were these: he said that he could not breathe; he said that he was losing control of his bowels; he did so; he vomited; finally he slumped motionless. Each of these signs of increasing distress was readily perceptible to the officers”.

Gareth weighed just 6½ stone and stood less than five feet tall. Here are 15 things I’ve learned since Gareth’s death.

1. Abuse and trauma characterise the backgrounds of child prisoners.

Research commissioned by the Youth Justice Board reports that up to 92 per cent of children in custody have suffered prior physical or sexual abuse or neglect. Children’s anguish and suffering often escape adults. We tend to fixate on their size and appearance and show little intelligent curiousity about the origins of their behaviour.

Children in prison are three times more likely than other children to have suffered the death of a parent or sibling. Winston’s Wish, the UK child bereavement charity, says that losing a parent or sibling “is one of the most devastating losses a child will ever face”. I researched the backgrounds of children who have died in prison and found bereavement common. Kevin Henson’s mother died of cancer on his 14th birthday. Before he hanged himself in prison, he wrote a note for his family: “Dear family, I’m sorry for doing this to you but I can’t ride this amount of time in here without seeing Mum’s grave”.

Up to 92% of children in custody have suffered prior physical or sexual abuse or neglect

2. Childhood imprisonment is a minority experience reserved for the poor and excluded.

Nearly half of imprisoned children are from black and minority ethnic communities, and they are significantly more likely to be put in segregation in young offender institutions (61 per cent compared with 47 per cent of all children) and significantly less likely to be offered help with being scared (17 per cent compared with 36 per cent). Official data shows that more than four in 10 children given custodial sentences were eligible for free school meals, a marker for poverty. A similar proportion has been in care or has special educational needs. Nine out of 10 children in young offender institutions have been excluded from school.

Nearly half of imprisoned children are from black and minority ethnic communities

3. Prison is the absolute worst place to be for children with high levels of need.

Less than two weeks after Gareth’s death, a coroner called for a public inquiry into the death of another vulnerable child who died in squalid conditions in a prison healthcare unit in 2002. Before hanging himself, Joseph Scholes had begged his mum to get him transferred to a children’s home, information she passed to the prison. Joseph’s phone call had, in any case, been recorded by the prison. This was a boy who had been sexually and physically abused in the past; he was being held in healthcare supposedly to keep him safe, with a concrete bed and wearing an anti-tear garment, described at his inquest as like a horse blanket, with no underwear underneath. Senior staff from his former children’s home told the inquest that Joseph was well-mannered and polite and presented no major management problems when in their care. Before taking his life, Joseph — just one month after his 16th birthday — wrote his parents a note: “I’m sorry, I just can’t cope”.

No public inquiry was held into Joseph’s death, nor any other’s child’s death in prison.

Picture of smiling teenager
Joseph Scholes | Image (family)

The Howard League for Penal Reform is representing a boy who, aged 15, was held for 55 days in solitary confinement. That’s equivalent to the whole of the school summer holiday plus another 13 days. The boy’s behaviour is violent and challenging. He has learning difficulties and a statement of special educational needs; he was first placed on the child protection register as a baby. One of the reasons a High Court judge found the boy was not subject to inhuman and degrading treatment during his solitary confinement was that he “also generally had a television, which can provide a form of stimulus and human voice”. (This ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeal).

4. The country’s largest public inquiry says children remain at risk of sexual abuse.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse set up by Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary, is investigating the failure of institutions to protect children from abuse, and what must happen now to keep children safe. In February 2019, on the publication of its report into abuse in custodial institutions, the inquiry’s chair, Alexis Jay, said:

“The harrowing accounts of non-recent child sexual abuse within custodial institutions were some of the worst cases this Inquiry has heard. But I am also deeply disturbed by the continuing problem of child sexual abuse in these institutions over the last decade. It is clear these children, who are some of the most vulnerable in society, are still at risk of sexual abuse”.

By July last year, the inquiry had identified 1,070 alleged incidents of child sexual abuse in custodial institutions between 2009 and 2017, with potentially 1,109 victims.

The abuse inquiry appears not to have investigated Warren Hill young offender institution, in Suffolk (now a men’s prison), even though William John Payne, a former Royal Marine and prison officer was jailed in May 2010, after sexually abusing a 17-year-old boy — both inside the prison and after release. Prosecuting counsel told the court that Payne was able to abuse the boy “at every opportunity”.

Nor does the inquiry probe Downview prison in Surrey whose acting governor Russell Thorne was jailed for five years in 2011 for misconduct in a public office — that is, coercing a young female prisoner to engage in sexual acts with him for four years. One of the many hundreds of FOI requests I’ve pursued over the past 15 years revealed that four Downview officers had been suspended, dismissed or convicted between January 2009 and October 2013 “as result of a sexually inappropriate behaviour with women prisoners or a young offender”. The local authority separately confirmed that “less than 10” girls made sexual abuse allegations against staff in the five years to March 2013.

“Sexually inappropriate behaviour” is one of those prison catch-all terms which hides what’s happened to children. In March this year, a parliamentary written answer revealed that the prison service still doesn’t keep any records of staff dismissed for sexually abusing children. The government’s answer said:

“Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) centrally holds the data on conduct and disciplinary cases. The data includes sexual harassment/assault; however, it is not specifically recorded as sexual abuse of children. The data also could relate to sexual harassment against other staff or children in these settings”.

This is 16 years after the conviction of Neville Husband for sexual assaulting young people in Medomsley detention centre; Durham Police’s Chief Superintendent told the abuse inquiry last year that there were 229 alleged victims of child sexual abuse there. Children were so terrified in that prison they would lie at the bottom of the stairs and ask other children to jump on them in the hope their legs would be broken, and they would be taken off the premises and therefore escape more abuse. Last month, five former officers were convicted of physical abuse.

newspaper clippings
Clockwise from top left | Christopher Onslow and John McGee. The court heard that Onslow beat one boy for disclosing that he had been raped by Neville Husband who was jailed in 2003. William Payne, jailed in 2010. Russell Thorne, jailed in 2011.

5. Children’s cries for help are ignored in prison.

There are countless examples of children begging for adult help. Among them:

A 15-year-old girl miscarried alone in her cell in Medway secure training centre. She said officers dismissed her requests to be taken to hospital; instead the four or five officers who came to her cell handed over two sanitary towels and told her to go to sleep. That was in 2010.

Shauneen Lambe, a lawyer who co-founded Just for Kids Law, told me about a boy with learning difficulties who vomited on first being put into a prison cell. He pressed his buzzer and couldn’t believe it when officers laughed at him.

Nick Hardwick, then Chief Inspector of Prisons, reported after one inspection that a boy in prison segregation with a lifelong medical condition pleaded with him tearfully to take him home to his mum.

Jake Hardy, a boy with ADHD who was subject to horrific bullying by other child prisoners, wrote a note to his mum:

“so mum if you are reading this I not alive cos I can not cope in prison people giveing [sic] me shit even staff”.

The inquest jury found that one of the many failures of the state to protect Jake’s life was the prison not allowing him to ring his mum hours before he was found hanging.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has reported a crying boy being restrained “on all fours with the staff member squatting behind him, thrusting his hips towards the boy”. This was in Rainsbrook secure training centre in 2014 — the same Northamptonshire prison in which Gareth was fatally restrained.

A child’s wrist was said to snap like a pencil during restraint; despite his continuing screams, officers forced his arms into a wrist lock position behind his back. He was left in his cell crying and in agony. When a prison nurse went to the boy, his mouth was still bleeding, and he had severe swelling and deformity of his wrist, loss of movement and pins and needles. A hospital had to anaesthetise him as they manipulated his wrist back into position. This was in 2011.

A child’s wrist was said to snap like a pencil during restraint; despite his screams, officers forced his arms behind his back

6. The Ministry of Justice (and formerly the Youth Justice Board) collects lots of data about children being restrained, but it’s not clear what they do with it.

The inquest process revealed the method of restraint which led to Gareth’s death — the ‘seated double embrace’ — was used on children 369 times in the preceding 12 months. In nearly one in three uses, children had been harmed; this was “life-threatening” 10 per cent of the time. Gareth himself had been subject to the seated double embrace restraint on admission to Rainsbrook secure training centre, because he refused to undress for a routine strip-search. Afterwards, he complained of pains in his chest.

7. Prison restraint techniques continue to be extremely dangerous.

Last year, there were four incidents where a child suffered a serious injury and required hospital treatment following restraint, and 210 incidents involving a ‘warning sign’. The Ministry of Justice defines warning signs as including: “Lost or reduced consciousness, abruptly/unexpectedly stopped struggling or suddenly calmed down, blueness of lips/fingernails/ear lobes (cyanosis), tiny pin point red dots seen on the skin (upper chest, neck, face, eyelids), difficulty breathing, complaints of feeling sick, vomiting, and complaints of difficulty breathing”.

A report I obtained recorded a child vomiting after being handed his inhaler to use while “under restraint” in 2013/14. That same year, two children — both asthmatic — were logged as appearing to lose consciousness during restraint.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons reviewed the current system of restraint in child prisons — called ‘Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint’ — and published a report at the end of 2015. Among their shocking findings, inspectors found “inconsistent” accounts of an incident where a child was restrained face down and in a head-hold for 17 minutes in a secure training centre. Some officers wrote in their notes that the boy became calm, while others recorded that “he became ‘unresponsive’, started making gagging noises and spitting on the floor”.

There were four incidents in 2018 where a child suffered a serious injury and required hospital treatment following restraint

In September 2016, I obtained the independent medical advice given to the Ministry of Justice in respect of 66 different scenarios where restraint techniques may be used in child prisons, during children’s escort to custody and when children are forced onto an aircraft for deportation. The scenarios were each rated on a scale of one to five for likelihood of risk, and one to five for the consequences to the child, with the worst, five, being the child’s “death or permanent severe disability affecting everyday life”.

The independent medical adviser assessed 28 (42 per cent) of the scenarios as two or higher for likelihood of death or permanent severe disability.

The inverted wrist hold — the most commonly used restraint technique (3,692 times last year) was assessed as being three on the one to five scale of likelihood of children suffering ligament/tendon damage and swelling which requires hospital treatment. This is officially described as non-pain compliant, though children report otherwise.

8. Pain-inducing restraint legitimises violence against children.

In August 2017, children’s rights charity Article 39 threatened legal action over escort officers being authorised to inflict pain as a form of restraint on children as young as 10. The escort officers can use pain-inducing techniques on the way to secure children’s homes, but staff working in these settings are not allowed to deliberately hurt children. The Ministry of Justice reconsidered its policy as a consequence, and then committed to launch a wider review of pain-inducing restraint across all child prisons and the escorting process.

Shortly after Article 39 applied for permission for judicial review, in October 2018, the government announced the wider review would be led by Charlie Taylor, the Chair of the Youth Justice Board – though in an independent capacity.

Earlier this year in February, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse published its investigation into custodial institutions. The inquiry said that pain-compliant restraint should be seen as a form of child abuse, and that “it is likely to contribute to a culture of violence, which may increase the risk of child sexual abuse”. It concluded the practice must be prohibited by law. The government has yet to respond to this finding.

Successive governments have failed to act on similar recommendations from parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, the UK’s four Children’s Commissioners, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN Committee Against Torture, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner and a host of other organisations including the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the NSPCC.

9. The prison system is resistant to change.

Fourteen-year-old Adam Rickwood hanged himself with his trainer laces in August 2004 after being inflicted with the ‘nose distraction’ — the name given to the prison restraint technique which involves a sharp blow to the nose. Adam’s nose bled for around an hour and officers refused to take him to hospital.

Adam Rickwood | Image (family)

The jury at the second inquest into his death (2011) found the use of this technique had been “unjustified, unreasonable and disproportionate” and therefore unlawful. Although it was withdrawn from secure training centres some months after Adam’s death, the ‘nose control’ was still used in young offender institutions. Eventually, it was withdrawn from these child prisons too — but only after the mandibular angle technique was put in its place. This involves the application of severe pain to a child’s neck. This looks very like the restraint used on ‘Billy’ in BBC Panorama’s undercover footage of child abuse in Medway secure training centre three years ago.

Following the deaths of Gareth and Adam, a review recommended a new system of restraint. That’s how ‘Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint’ (MMPR) came about. But instead of asking child care professionals to develop appropriate restraint techniques, the Ministry of Justice commissioned the National Tactical Response Group, described in this Sun newspaper video as the “prison service’s SAS”.

MMPR uses restraint techniques which are exactly the same or amended from those used in adult prisons. I know this because I tried for seven years to force full disclosure. The main reason I lost my FOI (Freedom of Information Act) case (which went as far as an application to the European Court of Human Rights) is that the Ministry of Justice fears transparency would destabilise adult prisons — because, officials say, there is overlap in the techniques and adult prisoners could study the children’s training manual in order to subvert restraint. This was one of the claims previously made by the Youth Justice Board, when it refused to publish the full details of the techniques used in secure training centres pre-MMPR. In that case, the Information Commissioner ordered transparency and the Board agreed to release the document days before a tribunal. Two years later, when the MMPR manual was published with 182 redactions, we were back to secrecy.

The coroner conducting the inquest into Gareth’s death made 34 recommendations, including that children must be given the opportunity to write their own account of a restraint incident. The Youth Justice Board initially rejected this recommendation, citing children’s poor literacy. However, it then arranged for independent advocates to attend debriefing sessions with children, to enable the child’s perspective to be heard. At the end of January 2019, the serious case review into child abuse in Medway secure training centre revealed that advocates from children’s charity Barnardo’s visit children to offer help, but only after their first experience of restraint. The dangers are obvious. Children repeatedly restrained are likely to be the most vulnerable and in greatest need of assistance. Moreover, officers who seek to abuse children through restraint will know that the possibility of independent scrutiny and help for the child will be relaxed after their first restraint.

10. Local authority protection of children in prison is inadequate.

Local authorities are legally required to investigate and take action to safeguard a child’s welfare when they have suffered significant harm. This duty applies to all children living in their area, including children in prison. The Howard League for Penal Reform won a High Court legal challenge 17 years ago confirming this fact. Six local authorities in England currently have child prisons in their area.

In 2015, I asked local authorities to provide data on abuse and neglect allegations against adults working in child prisons, the number of statutory child protection enquiries and details of the outcomes of these investigations.

Three of the six local authorities provided no data at all. Staffordshire (Werrington young offender institution) didn’t respond. Leeds (Wetherby young offender institution) and Medway (Cookham Wood and Medway secure training centre) both said it would cost them more than £450 to find the information. Northamptonshire had data for one year only, showing there had been 25 allegations against adults working in Rainsbrook secure training centre in 2014/15.

The serious case review following the BBC Panorama investigation showed “serious and undetected deficiencies” in how Medway Council responded to abuse allegations. That was published in January 2019. An earlier investigation — by a Board set up by the then Justice Secretary Michael Gove after the Panorama programme — found 14 child protection referrals were made between February and October 2015, with the local authority concluding that none was substantiated. The reason? There was no CCTV evidence to back up children’s accounts. Official letters were sent to children to this effect. The Youth Justice Board was in receipt of 35 whistle-blowing letters — received over the preceding seven years. Moreover, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse discovered 44 sexual abuse incidents in respect of Medway secure training centre between 2012 and 2017.

Two local authorities gave full responses to my FOI, though the data was not at all reassuring.

The London Borough of Hounslow said it received 82 referrals across the three years in respect of Feltham young offender institution, leading to 28 statutory child protection enquiries. However, 100 per cent of the 82 allegations were found not to be substantiated.

Milton Keynes had 86 referrals in respect of Oakhill secure training centre, 33 statutory child protection enquiries were undertaken and just eight (9 per cent) allegations were found to be substantiated.

The serious case review following the BBC Panorama investigation showed serious deficiencies in how Medway Council responded to abuse allegations

11. Power defends itself.

The inquest into Gareth’s death heard that restraint trainers at Rainsbrook secure training centre had nicknames like Clubber, Mauler, Crusher and Breaker. A senior G4S manager later told the press this had been taken out of context. The staff member known to her colleagues as Clubber, for example, liked to go to night-clubs, he said.

A review of restraint established after the deaths of Gareth and Adam Rickwood noted that “almost all submissions” (including from the Department of Health) said pain-inducing restraint should be withdrawn. Yet the review authors concluded it was necessary “as an alternative to prolonged use of non-compliant restraints that can cause danger to young people”. The case of David ‘Rocky’ Bennett was cited in support.

A poster publicising the inquest into death of David 'Rocky' Bennett
A poster publicising the inquest into death of David 'Rocky' Bennett | Andrew Parsons/PA Archives/PA Images

David Bennett died following restraint in a medium mental health secure unit. The inquiry panel into his death stated “its firm view that it was not appropriate to inflict deliberate pain during any form of restraint of a patient, whatever the circumstances might be. Any patient who required physical restraint was by definition in a medical emergency”. Besides, David Bennett died following protracted restraint — nurses held him face down for 25 minutes after a painful thumb lock was used on him.

Three inspectorates judged Rainsbrook inadequate at keeping children safe in May 2015. G4S responded by commissioning its own report — from Martin Narey who had been in charge of the prison service before becoming the first Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service. Afterwards, he ran Barnardo’s for six years. Narey had also previously been an occasional paid adviser to G4S.

The Youth Justice Board’s then Chair thanked Narey for his report on Rainsbrook, via a press release published on the government’s website. Although commissioned by G4S, Narey explained that he saw the Board as the “primary recipient” of his assessment. His report said:

“My test in visiting places of custody for over thirty years is to reflect about how I’d feel if my son or daughter were incarcerated there. In Rainsbrook’s case, I would consider him or her to be safe and to be generally well treated.”

Two of the inspectorates’ findings were so devastating the details were kept out their report. Narey himself conceded that one of these was “disgusting”; he was disappointed there was no police prosecution against staff. It appears from information published by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse that this involved a child taking another into his cell to defecate on his head as a punishment. Two members of staff saw this happening and chose not to intervene.

The other incident not revealed in the inspection report involved the sexualised restraint of a crying child (see above), with an officer on all fours. Narey additionally discusses the inspectors’ concerns about a child with a fractured wrist not being taken to hospital for 15 hours. Since all of these incidents occurred prior to the inspection, he dismissed the inspectorates’ conclusion that the child prison was presently unsafe.

12. Child prisons are recycled, rebranded.

Over the past 160 years, we have had reformatories, borstals, approved schools, remand centres, detention centres, youth custody centres, young offender institutions and secure training centres. Each rebranding has retained the core aim of locking child offenders in institutions markedly inferior in design, safety and status to those provided for more deserving children. The first experimental secure school, which will be run as both an academy school and a secure children’s home, is due to replace Medway secure training centre, against calls for the prison to be closed. This is despite the decades’ of abuse and suffering there, and the shocking failure of local authority safeguarding arrangements. Why? One answer recently given by the government is that the Ministry of Justice owns the site.

13. ‘Learning the lessons’ isn’t happening.

Having read every press release, statement and report concerning the mistreatment and deaths of children in prison over the past 20 years, I have grown weary of official pledges to learn the lessons. This was not the language we expected from parents who had abused or seriously neglected their children when I worked in a local authority child protection team. We looked for empathy, regret and a clear commitment to change, often with a period of very intensive support and scrutiny. Child abuse in families was never, ever, knowingly allowed to continue.

14. No sense of urgency in closing child prisons.

More than two years ago, the Ministry of Justice declared it shared Charlie Taylor’s vision to “in the longer term” replace young offender institutions and secure training centres with secure schools. Since then not a single child prison has closed. There has been no watershed moment, like there was with children in care, when central and local government publicly faced up to the extent of abuse and mistreatment in residential care.

15. The decency, strengths and human potential of children currently locked up are not recognised or valued nearly enough.

Whenever I hear adults decrying violent and damaged 'youths', I think about the children I met and interviewed for the Carlile Inquiry over a decade ago.

In beautifully ordered cells, children offered me their beds to sit on while they took the floor.

They showed me their certificates and photos, talked warmly about their parents and families and freely and openly admitted to having done wrong. They told me about the pain, humiliation and anger they felt during restraint, strip-searching and segregation; some gave physical demonstrations of having hands gripped round their neck and being pushed violently to the floor.

I remember the senior G4S manager, who tried to stop me having these private conversations, saying the Youth Justice Board backed him up. I can still hear the heavy banging on the cell doors from officers’ fists and the bellowing that my time was nearly up.

All of the information I have sought and published over the past 15 years concerns children in the care of the state. These children are among the most vulnerable in our society, their wrongdoing often a response to appalling hardship and abuse. In prison, they experience new depths of violence, chaos and deprivation. This is a system which tells children they are not worthy, and tolerates and perpetuates serious harm. Nearly one in five children in young offender institutions surveyed by prison inspectors last year said they felt unsafe “now”.


Edited by Clare Sambrook and Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi for Shine A Light.


In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Childline in the UK can be reached on 0800 1111, or by confidential email via its website.

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