Shine A Light

Prison, a treacherous place for a child

Thirty-three children have died in English child prisons since 1990. A powerful new book exposes how Britain’s most vulnerable children are routinely damaged by the state.

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Carolyne Willow
22 June 2015

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When Alex Kelly was six years old, medical examinations revealed that he had been repeatedly raped over many years. He was subsequently taken into the care of Tower Hamlets council.

In January 2012, when Alex was 15, he hanged himself at Cookham Wood young offender institution in Kent. He’d been there for four months. For most of this period, Alex had no allocated social worker, and council workers argued with one another over their responsibilities to him.

Late last year, after an inquest jury concluded that “systemic failure” by the local authority and inadequate safeguarding within the prison had contributed to Alex’s death, the solicitor Mark Scott, speaking for Alex’s father, said: “Alex was extremely vulnerable and a child in need of care but instead was treated as a child in need of custody.” (PDF here)

Children who have suffered the most horrendous hardships in their early lives find little mercy in the state-organised punishment of penal incarceration. From everything that could be known about a child, we select a fraction of his or her behaviour – that which has breached the law – and construe their ‘master status’ as young offender.

Many other descriptors could be used (if label we must) to more accurately reflect children’s lives and circumstances, including victims of poverty, maltreatment, bereavement, educational exclusion and institutional racism. There is no question that the vast majority of child prisoners will have suffered serious human rights violations.


Alex Kelly

Alex was one of 33 children to have died in English child prisons since 1990. That’s when the UK signed an international children’s rights agreement to use detention only as a measure of last resort.

There has been a massive reduction in the number of detained children over the past five years but, still, the UK remains one of the chief child incarcerators in Europe.

In 1991, there were 572 children held in prison service institutions; in March 2015, there were 706. A further 186 were detained in three secure training centres run by the international security company G4S. (Children were moved out of Hassockfield secure training centre, run by Serco, at the end of last year).

Just 11 per cent of children in custody (112) were kept in secure children’s homes, establishments governed by the Children Act 1989 and run by local authorities.

Only two of 47 Council of Europe member states, Russia and Turkey, detained more children than the UK in September 2013, the latest date for which Council of Europe figures are available.

They are children

A few years ago I set out to write a book about two boys, Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood, who died following ‘restraint’ in secure training centres in 2004. I wanted to find out what they were like as people, what made them laugh, what they enjoyed doing, what plans they had for their lives. I hoped to be able to write about them in such a way as to encourage policymakers to make connections with the children in their own lives they love and cherish, and to thereby stimulate radical action.

Then I read Cruel Britannia, Ian Cobain’s book on the British state’s use of torture, and I decided to widen the scope of my work to examine the many harms caused by child incarceration. Having been a children’s rights campaigner for many years, I was already well aware of many of the scandals. But I knew there was much more to investigate and expose.

My early career as a child protection social worker had equipped me to ask uncomfortable questions, to interrogate information and ‘facts’ presented by adults in positions of power and to always stay firmly focused on the child’s feelings and perspective. Several hundred FOIs, analysis of dozens of parliamentary questions, 24 interviews and months of research and writing, and here we are.

My book, Children Behind Bars, catalogues the mistreatment of vulnerable children held behind perimeter fences and banged up in cells for 14 or more hours a day, sometimes over a hundred miles from home.

These are children banished to young offender institutions known to be violent and unsafe, and secure training centres found by the High Court to have been sites of “widespread unlawful use of restraint”.

Child prisoners are exposed to practices that would invite state intervention were they to happen in the community. A parent who locked a child in a tiny room for more than 20 hours a day would, at the very least, be sent on a compulsory course to correct his or her abusive behaviour. Yet such mistreatment is routinely perpetrated by a punitive state that abandons child protection norms when it comes to young offenders.

What else might explain the lack of public outcry following an inspection report on a Staffordshire prison in March 2014? This told us children were being locked in cells that were “the worst [inspectors] had seen for some time. Some cells were filthy, gloomy and covered in graffiti, and contained offensive material, heavily scaled toilets, damaged furniture and smashed observation panels”. [PDF]

Many of the cells holding children on their first night in the prison were “in an uninhabitable state”.

Three quarters of child inmates were held in pairs in cells designed for single occupancy. The inspectors noted: “Cells were cramped with not enough furniture and inadequate toilet screening.”

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Another inspection report that same month tells of children at Wetherby young offender institution in West Yorkshire locked in cells so small they had to sleep “in close proximity to the toilet”. [PDF]

In a third report — released in August 2014 — inspectors who visited Hindley young offender institution, near Wigan, expressed concern about the prison’s punishment and rewards scheme. At weekends, children on its lowest level spent at most 135 minutes out of their cells. Boys sometimes had less than 15 minutes’ daily exercise in the open air. [PDF]

Here’s how Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, sums up the effects of imprisonment on children:

“It’s intellectually stultifying, it’s emotionally inhibiting, it’s sexually inhibiting, it’s frightening, your educational opportunities are restricted. In every aspect it’s negative.”

Six years ago, after investigating the treatment of children and adults with mental health problems and learning disabilities by the police, courts and prisons, Labour peer Lord Bradley reported:

“The prison environment, with its rules and regimes governing daily life, can be seriously detrimental to mental health.”

The Children’s Commissioner for England documented the case of a primary school girl who had suffered domestic violence and family breakdown. As a newly imprisoned teenager, she refused to leave her cell for the first six weeks.

Imagine a child in the community spending the whole of the school summer holidays locked in an austerely furnished room with a toilet, and food trays delivered to the door.

The experience of being sent to prison is deeply traumatic, as this boy told the Howard League for Penal Reform:

“My first night in custody was the worst night of my life. I’d never been lonely before. I felt so lonely.”

Joseph Scholes left his parents a note before he hanged himself in prison a month after his 16th birthday: “I’m sorry, I just can’t cope.”

See no evil. . .

How can we explain the lack of outrage shown by the general public, the media and among politicians, in response to 33 children dying in institutions run by the state? Do people know?

Information drips from different sources. It is difficult to get the full picture.

There is research and testimony published by campaign groups, human rights bodies and academics. Some of the most shocking evidence is in court reports, inquest transcripts, coroners’ notes and other official documents that take some tracking down.

Then there is the use of euphemism and what psychologists might call avoidance techniques. Officials rarely use the siren call of child abuse when it comes to prisons.

“Inappropriate” was the adjective chosen by the prisons inspectorate to describe the routine handcuffing and strip-searching of vulnerable children brought to a specialist unit because they could not cope in an ordinary prison.


“Significant weakness” was how Ofsted noted the absence of nurses, in contravention of the rules, during the use of restraint in a secure training centre. Inspectors gave the commercial contractor G4S three months to rectify the breach. In February 2015, inspectors who had visited another G4S-run secure training centre communicated their “concern” that a child with a fracture was denied medical treatment for 15 hours.

Former head of the prison service, Martin Narey, told parliamentarians of “the possibility that the public greatly underestimates the full extent of the discomfort, pain and deprivation of liberty for anyone of any age”. He said: “For a child it is particularly traumatic.”

Significant harm

Knowingly causing children discomfort, pain and trauma fits the definition of significant harm in the Children Act 1989 – the part of the law sending social workers to front doors.

Harm in the 1989 Act means ill treatment or the impairment of a child’s health or development, including, for example, impairment suffered from seeing or hearing the ill treatment of others.

Development encompasses a child’s physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development. Health means physical or mental health. Ill treatment includes sexual abuse and other kinds of mistreatment that are not physical.

For many years Chris Callender has worked with children in prison, as a solicitor in law firms in Leeds and London and as the legal director of the Howard League for Penal Reform. I asked him if any of his cases involved a child suffering significant harm in prison. He said:

“Most of the cases are likely to be bullying or intimidation or risk from either other prisoners or officers within the context and confines of the imprisonment. I can’t think of many cases where those young people were free from those issues.

“So I just think that incarceration in YOIs [young offender institutions], particularly YOIs, the risk of harm – whether through fights, through turf wars, through bullying, threats from officers to children, or children to children – is endemic.”

According to government child protection rules, physical abuse encompasses hitting, throwing and “otherwise causing physical harm to a child”.

Emotional abuse can include “conveying to a child that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued insofar as they meet the needs of another person”. It may include silencing the child, belittling them and having inappropriate expectations. Serious bullying, and making children feel frightened and in danger a lot of the time, is a form of emotional abuse.

Sexual abuse can include “forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities”. Neglect is the persistent failure to meet the child’s most basic needs.

You’d be terrified

In July 2013, the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that parents would be ‘terrified’ were their child to be incarcerated in Feltham young offender institution in London.

Had this been a statement from the head of the Care Quality Commission about an older people’s home, or a hospital for people with learning disabilities, the establishment in question would have been closed down. Prison service managers seem to have superhuman resilience to exposures that would topple other organisations.

Feltham young offender institution was the prison in which Zahid Mubarek, a British Asian teenager, was placed in a cell with profoundly disturbed Robert Stewart of the same age. On 21 March 2000, Stewart battered Mubarek into a coma with a table leg. Such was the minimal staffing in the institution, and the physical layout, that it was Stewart himself who first drew attention to the ferocious attack by ringing his cell buzzer.

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Nick Hardwick: 'If you were a parent with a child in Feltham you would be right to be terrified'

Zahid died in hospital. The public inquiry into his death heard that prison officers had devised a game called ‘Coliseum’, whereby incompatible inmates would be deliberately detained in shared cells to incite violence and staff made bets on the outcome.

The inquiry was unable to substantiate those claims. However, it discovered that three white prison officers had handcuffed an ethnic minority prisoner to the bars of his cell, removed his trousers and smeared his bottom with black shoe polish. The officers were given official warnings.

Two white trainee prison officers who urinated on a black trainee during a training course were dismissed.

The then head of the prison service Martin Narey admitted: “It goes beyond institutional racism to blatant malicious pockets of racism.”

Sexual abuse of child prisoners

There were 181 boys in Feltham at the time of the ‘terrified parents’ inspection. Almost a third of children reported victimisation by a member of staff. And 300 acts of violence had been perpetrated by children on each other in the six months preceding the inspection. The inspectors found a segregation unit, which also held young adults, with “ingrained dirt on floors and walls”. [PDF]

The prisons inspectorate’s survey of children held in 11 prisons the previous year found 32 per cent of boys and 22 per cent of girls had felt unsafe. More than one in 10 boys and almost a quarter of girls reported being subject to insulting remarks by prison staff. Physical abuse by staff was reported by 4 per cent of the boys. [PDF]

At least nine boys reported sexual abuse by staff and the same number said other boys had sexually abused them. In one prison unit staff sexual abuse was alleged by 6 per cent of the boys. One in every 20 boys reported racial or ethnic abuse by staff. Nearly one tenth of children reported bullying by prison officers in another piece of research; child-on-child bullying was even higher. [PDF]

An FOI request I made to the prisons inspectorate revealed that, between July 2009 and March 2014, inspectors reported 130 child protection allegations from 112 children to prison child protection staff or managers following 30 routine inspections of young offender institutions and secure training centres in England.

Surveys in only two of the inspections resulted in no allegations of child abuse.

The actual incidence of abuse may be much higher. Surveys of children in unsafe surroundings are unlikely, on their own, to elicit the true level of abuse and other concerns.

The Ministry of Justice agency that runs prisons is called the National Offender Management Service, or NOMS. Early in 2014 NOMS disclosed that it had paid £252,370 in compensation over the past five years to individuals detained as children or young adults in 12 English prisons.

Payouts in respect of two child prisons — Warren Hill and Hindley young offender institutions — amounted to £76,000 between 2008/09 and 2012/13. Officials refused to disclose the nature of the claims, supposedly to protect the identity of claimants.

No data was provided for Ashfield young offender institution (which held children until 2013). As a private prison, it is obliged to provide information only as specified in its government contract, I was told. Nor can such data be unearthed using FOI requests, since private prisons are not covered by FOI legislation.

Imprisoning children means more than depriving them of their liberty. It squanders precious time that could be spent investigating what has gone wrong in their lives and changing it. Adolescence is a period of massive transformation, when even teenagers living happy lives require careful handling. Imprisonment is a deliberate act of rejection, banishment and exclusion – the very antithesis of what these children need.

Child prisoners rarely move from being fully included in society one day, to outsiders the next. Barrister and peer Lord Carlile, who conducted an inquiry into the treatment of child prisoners, described the “animalised, brutalised structure” of prison life that compounds what has been missing in the lives of these children.

Hard lives, inside and out

Our prisons are filled with the poorest, most disadvantaged children who often have considerable mental health and learning difficulties. Even before they begin the admissions process, which involves being given a number, removing clothes and answering questions about suicidal thoughts and substance misuse, the lives of most child prisoners will have told them that they are worthless – certainly worth less than other children.

Analysis of the forms completed when a child has contact with the criminal justice system shows more than a third of girls have been abused and many have endured significant bereavement or loss (29 per cent) or witnessed family violence (24 per cent). Only 17 per cent live with both their parents. [PDF]

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Children learn in prison that suppressing their feelings and being outwardly tough is the best way to survive. The chances are they believe this already.

Hunger is a common complaint. In January 2014, prisons minister Jeremy Wright told parliament the prison service spent an average of £1.96 a day on prisoner meals in 2013/14, an 11 per cent reduction on the previous year. Even hospitals spend three times as much.

In a recent study of food in young offender institutions, only one of the nine prisons achieved the policy requirement of having no more than 14 hours between evening meal and breakfast.

In June 2014, children were served mouldy bread in Cookham Wood young offender institution — while inspectors were on the premises. [PDF]

I can’t breathe

Coroners and judges have ruled that unlawful restraint regimes continued unabated for many years in secure training centres. Human rights bodies have criticised the UK’s reliance on pain infliction as a tool of restraint.

INQUEST, the charity that supports the bereaved families of children and adults who have died in police and prison custody, told the government in 2007: “the violation of the rights of this large body of children goes worryingly beyond inhumane and humiliating treatment. It has been proved forensically that it presents a persistent risk of injury, suffering or death.” [PDF]

It is a matter of public record that large numbers of children have been injured, many very badly, following restraint in penal institutions over the past decade.

In November 2011, parliament was told that 285 ‘exception reports’ had been submitted to civil servants since 2006 by commercial contractors G4S and Serco in respect of the four secure training centres. The two companies are required to produce these reports whenever children’s breathing has been compromised during restraint, or they have suffered serious injury requiring hospital treatment.

There are details that do not make their way to parliament, such as the five children who suffered six wrist fractures during restraint in Castington young offender institution between January 2007 and September 2008. A reply to a question in parliament in December 2007 reported that only one child had suffered such an injury after restraint in that prison that year. Even the government’s correction in September 2009 did not result in the true figure being recorded.

The internal report I obtained through an FOI request states that none of the five children was restrained because they were fighting and that most of the injuries were sustained in areas without CCTV.

A separate internal prison review was undertaken after six incidents in which children were thought to have suffered a fractured or broken bone during restraint in Hindley young offender institution (one suspected fracture was later found to have been wrongly diagnosed). The injuries occurred between February 2009 and April 2011, and only one of the situations arose because a child was fighting. One boy made an official complaint to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman after he was moved to another prison. It was upheld.

Information obtained from the Youth Justice Board records, on average, 84 self-harm incidents in young offender institutions, and 16 in secure training centres, every month throughout 2012. Between 2007/08 and 2011/12, 81 children in young offender institutions and 17 in secure training centres required hospital treatment following self-harm.

One teenage girl incarcerated in a women’s prison in Wakefield self-harmed so badly she needed blood transfusions. She was passed back and forth between prison segregation and hospital until her lawyer at the Howard League for Penal Reform obtained a High Court injunction in 2005 preventing her return to prison.

Her barrister, Ian Wise QC, said:

“There were women prison officers who were trying to do the right thing for [the girl] I’m sure, but they were just totally out of their depth. I mean these people have got no training on mental health issues.”

Now, strip

As a child protection social worker, I worked with children who had been sexually assaulted in their own homes. I spent a lot of time reassuring children they were not to blame and no-one had the right to hurt them. Some years later, during my work on Lord Carlile’s inquiry, I met children who had been strip-searched in secure training centres. They said they felt embarrassed, degraded and uncomfortable. One girl told me about being strip-searched during her period; she had to pass her sanitary towel to staff for inspection. [PDF]

Had I still been a social worker, and these children were telling me about their fathers, uncles or children’s homes workers, they would have been officially classed as victims of child abuse. But as child prisoners such routine attacks on their integrity were authorised by the state.

Children in young offender institutions have reported being made to squat in front of officers without their underwear.

Routine strip-searching was banned for female prisoners several years before the same policy change for children.

When Lord Carlile concluded that strip-searching is not necessary to maintain good order and safety, the Youth Justice Board promised a review. Its then chair, Rod Morgan, argued in The Guardian: “Some young people arrive in custody with drugs or weapons hidden on their bodies and clothing. The consequences of drugs or knives inside a secure establishment are not hard to imagine, and every precaution, including searching, has been taken to stop this.”

So Morgan and the Youth Justice Board must have had robust evidence that strip-searching was necessary?

Not so.

The Youth Justice Board began collecting strip-searching data only in 2011, five years after the Carlile Inquiry reported and eleven years after it was given legal responsibility for booking children into prisons.

Rod Morgan resigned in January 2007, telling BBC Newsnight: “I have to say to you that a custodial establishment, no matter how good we make them, is the worst conceivable environment within which to improve somebody’s behaviour.”

How to dehumanise

In June 2011, inspectors observed “petty and restrictive” rules operating in Lancaster Farms young offender institution. Only children on the highest level of the behaviour management scheme could wear their own clothes and even this was restricted to their cells and during other very limited periods. [PDF] Earlier inspection reports showed this to be institutionally entrenched.


Five months into the new millennium, inspectors found the prison was experiencing “problems getting Prison Service clothes small enough for many of the residents” and recommended: “Small clothing should be available from Central Prison Service Stores.” [PDF]

This was five years after the NSPCC had published a report from survivors of abuse in care. One of the violations depicted in the report concerned the humiliation of being forced to wear communal clothing:

“If we did not achieve so many points we were not allowed to wear our own clothes.”

The final inspection of Warren Hill young offender institution in Suffolk before it became an adult prison in April 2014 reported that children were made to wear prison clothes but could keep their own underwear and socks. The only washing facility for underwear and socks was cell basins, so “many chose to wear prison-issue underclothes”. [PDF]

A children’s charity was asked to review safeguarding in child prisons and its 2008 report observed that journeys to the young offender institutions “get them off to a frightening start. They often arrived late after hours spent in a small, uncomfortable cubicle within a van, frightened not only about where they are being taken to but what will happen to them if the van crashes”. [PDF] Some children were given plastic bags to urinate in, a demeaning practice reported by inspectors as recently as March 2014.

Deborah Coles is the co-director of INQUEST and has been working for the charity since before teenager Philip Knight hanged himself in an adult prison in Swansea in 1990. She told me:

“I didn’t have children when I was involved with Philip Knight, and 1994 was when [my son] was born and I do think that, as my kids have grown up, and you see the vulnerability of your own kids who are in supportive environments with food on the table, have got a home, are relatively stable or go to a nice school, and then you look at these kids who are in prison, it just makes you ... it hits you in a different way actually, it makes you even more ashamed.”

Since Philip’s death, inquests have recorded a verdict of suicide for 12 children’s deaths in penal custody, and accidental death for eight of the children. There were four narrative verdicts, five open verdicts, three verdicts of misadventure and one unlawful killing. Accidental death and misadventure are verdicts given when juries decide a death was unintended; narrative verdicts are detailed statements of the background issues surrounding a person’s death; and an open verdict means there was insufficient evidence to return another verdict.

All but four of the children whose deaths were judged to be suicide were known to have self-harmed in the past or were being monitored at the time of their death. You wouldn’t have to be a child psychiatrist to doubt whether the remaining four could withstand imprisonment. One had developed serious alcohol problems after the death of his mother from cancer on his 14th birthday. Another had severe learning difficulties and was worried about his parents who both had cancer. A third child had endured chronic bullying and requested to be placed in segregation for his own safety. The parents of the fourth child criticised the prison for not allowing their son his medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Two of the 33 children who died as prisoners, 15-year-old Gareth Myatt and 14-year-old Adam Rickwood, were held in secure training centres run by G4S and Serco respectively. These boys died four months apart, 10 years ago, after being subject to appalling forms of restraint.


Gareth Myatt

Before he lost consciousness, Gareth told the three guards holding him down that he could not breathe. The response was that if he could speak he could breathe. He died minutes later from positional asphyxia. The Youth Justice Board suspended the use of the seated double embrace, the authorised hold used on Gareth, two months later.

Adam was subject to ‘nose distraction’ — the official euphemism for a severe assault to the nose — just hours before he was found hanging in his cell. Adam’s nose bled for about an hour, and his request to go to hospital for an X-ray was refused. He left behind a note asking what gave staff the right to hit a child in the nose.

Ministers eventually withdrew this particular technique. However, the deliberate infliction of pain by other methods remains.


Adam RickwoodNone of the 33 child deaths in prison has been dignified with a public inquiry. Adam Rickwood’s mother told me she is still not certain what her son was wearing when he lost consciousness, since the prison had mislaid some of his clothes.

She described Hassockfield secure training centre in County Durham as “the scariest place I have ever witnessed”. Adam himself, in one letter home, described “a 30-foot wall and cage all around me”.

Politicians and large unpleasant thugs

Michael Howard, the home secretary who signed the first contract for a secure training centre, famously said in 1993 that child offenders “are adult in everything except years”.

Fifteen years later, Labour’s secretary of state for justice, Jack Straw, was asked whether he would reverse the UK’s standing in Europe as the greatest child incarcerator. He replied:

“Most young people who are put into custody are aged 16 and 17 – they are not children; they are often large, unpleasant thugs, and they are frightening to the public.”

On that very day, Straw’s prisons minister told parliament there were 458 children in young offender institutions and secure training centres who were known to be at risk of self-harm, 419 at known risk of drug dependency, 310 with known mental health problems and 91 at known risk of bullying. Nearly 400 children were in prison for the first time.

The justice secretary should have been aware that, of the 30 child deaths in custody there had been at the time of his speech, 24 were children aged 16 or 17. All 30 of the dead children were boys.

The coalition government’s justice secretary Chris Grayling announced through the Daily Telegraph in July 2013 that his department was reviewing the punishment and rewards scheme in child prisons: “It seems ludicrous to me that we dole out privileges regardless of how children behave,” he wrote. “Luxuries must be a reward for good behaviour not an automatic right.”

An international review of prison mother and baby units observed that girls in the G4S-run Rainsbrook secure training centre “can even earn the privilege of putting posters on the walls”. [PDF]

Grayling asserted that children would “face tough sanctions” for breaching a 10.30 pm lights and television curfew.

There are many reasons children come to rely on artificial light and television and radio into the early hours, including fear, loneliness and restlessness.

I have spoken with children who have had everything removed from their cells as a sanction, including photographs and education certificates from walls. Not one of them has ever told me that this helped improve their behaviour.

This is the first of three edited extracts from Children Behind Bars: why the abuse of child imprisonment must end. Part two tomorrow: Mothers and sons. On children who have died in UK prisons. And Wednesday: The sex abusers guarding Britain’s most vulnerable children. Detailed references can be found in the book.

Children Behind Bars can be purchased from Policy Press here (£12.99 plus £2.75 postage and packing). Subscribers to the Policy Press newsletter receive a 35 per cent discount. You can sign up here.

Original illustration is by Reece Wykes, working in charcoal, digitally enhanced. Wykes is a London-based illustrator and animator freshly graduated from Kingston University. He tweets @ReeceWykes

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