Shine A Light

When the state says it’s all right to hurt a child

UK government policy allows adults to deliberately inflict pain on a child in certain circumstances. For Adam Rickwood the consequences, 15 years ago today, were lethal.

CarolyneWillow 2017 photo.jpg
Carolyne Willow
8 August 2019, 6.00am
Adam Rickwood.
Courtesy of Adam’s family.

Adam Rickwood was a lively boy who enjoyed the outdoors, loved camping and rabbiting, and had dreams of becoming a police officer or setting up his own garage business.

His mother, Carol Pounder, told me everything started to change for Adam after five family members died within the space of four years. He was constantly crying and upset and would have angry outbursts. “He wanted to know why people died. I tried to explain to him why people died, but he just couldn’t understand it,” Carol said.

By the time he was 14, Adam had been admitted to hospital seven times after overdosing on alcohol and drugs.

He was being held on remand at a child prison, Hassockfield secure training centre, run by Serco, 150 miles from home. Until the night he died he had kept his belongings packed in a sports bag in a staff office, hopeful that his solicitor would get him bail and he could return to live in a children’s home.

A child with special educational needs locked in his cell passed Adam a note to hand to another child. An officer read the note, and ordered Adam to his room. When Adam refused, because in his eyes he had done nothing wrong, the ‘first response’ restraint call was activated and four officers seized and restrained Adam. He was hit in the nose, carried face down to his cell and left in a kneeling position.

Later that evening, Adam asked for his bag from the office. He wrote a letter for his family and one for his solicitor, and then he hanged himself. Aged just 14, he was the youngest child to die in prison in modern times.

That was fifteen years ago today, 8 August 2004.

When I interviewed Carol, she told me about the CCTV film she watched during the first inquest into Adam’s death:

“Basically, they beat him up and they took him to his cell and left him. They beat Adam up in the association area. They carried him like a dead animal, face down. And what they said was the reason why they carried him face down was because his nose was bleeding so badly they didn’t want him to choke to death on his blood. That’s exactly what they said…. On the CCTV evidence that I’ve seen, they throw Adam in his cell like a dog, and then they go and jump on him again…. The way they were carrying my son, I actually thought he was dead. And he was in his socks. He didn’t even have shoes on his feet. And then they threw Adam in the cell, and then they all jumped on him again … I think the lightest one was 13-and-a-half stone, and you see him pushing on to the top of Adam, and you could tell they get a kick out of it. I mean, if we’d done that to a kid, well…. Then they all came running out that room, out of the cell…. When they came running out you can actually see the smirks on their faces.”

‘Nose distraction’ was the official Home Office term for the government approved restraint technique used on Adam. Serco custody officers were perhaps more honest with themselves when they called it a ‘nose strike’. A child interviewed by the NSPCC explained, “[T]hey would put their fingers up your nose and pull tightly. It would feel like they were going to pull your nose clean off”. The official training manual (released after lengthy freedom of information proceedings) advised:

“The number one of the team will move the hand on the trainee’s chin to a position to just underneath the nose and above the top lip. The fingers stay taut with the index finger making contact with the trainee’s face. The opposite hand acts as a counter pressure on the back of the head. The number one will direct pressure at an angle of 45 degrees toward the back of the trainee’s head. Once used the hand moves back onto the trainee’s chin in the head support position.”

There were two other so-called ‘distractions’ authorised for use on children as young as 12. One involved an officer sharply digging their index finger into a child’s rib (the ‘rib distraction’); the other yanking a child’s thumb back (the ‘thumb distraction’). I made an FOI request to find out how often they were used. The official claim was that officers only ever inflicted pain as a last resort. But the released data showed these three brutal techniques were used 768 times in the four secure training centres in the year after Adam’s death. There were 51 recorded injuries on children — mostly to their noses.

Adam Rickwood.
Adam Rickwood.
Courtesy of Adam's family.

Other information brought into public view following inquests and associated legal proceedings showed deliberately hurting children as a form of behaviour control was entrenched and commonplace.

Two child safeguarding experts who conducted a serious case review into Adam’s death in 2007 correctly identified that deliberately inflicting pain on a child to secure compliance is likely to be a breach of their right to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment under article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was confirmed by the Court of Appeal the following year, in 2008, and some months after this ruling the ‘nose distraction’ was permanently withdrawn. But other equally harmful methods remain in place.

The Home Office’s system of restraint in secure training centres was replaced in 2012 with one devised by the prison service’s national tactical response group (described in this promotional video as the prison system’s SAS). At least 3 of the 12 approved techniques are deliberately pain-inducing. These are the ‘thumb flexion’, the ‘mandibular angle technique’ and the ‘wrist flexion’. The ‘inverted wrist hold’, used 3,692 times on children last year, is not officially classed as pain-inducing though both staff and children have told prison inspectors it hurts.

We don’t know the precise details of any of these techniques as the 2012 manual was published with 182 redactions. My attempts to force full disclosure – which went as far as an application to the European Court of Human Rights – have failed.

Adam Rickwood.
Adam Rickwood.
Courtesy of Adam's family.

Staff in children’s homes are not allowed to inflict pain on children as a form of restraint. In 2016, the Youth Justice Board announced that escort custody officers taking children to secure children’s homes would now be trained in the prison restraint techniques. This meant children could be inflicted with pain during their journeys from court to children’s home, but protected from such treatment once in the care of staff in the home. This stark difference in approach has nothing to do with the children themselves; this is about the competing values, knowledge and skills of those working from a child welfare versus a child offender mindset: the Department for Education is in charge of policy for children’s homes and the Ministry of Justice decides prison policy.

My charity, Article 39, raised funds through a public appeal and last October applied for permission for a judicial review of the policy. In response, the Ministry of Justice launched a review led by Charlie Taylor, who has been chair of the Youth Justice Board since March 2017.

Ministers recently announced that he has now completed his research, though there has been no public call for evidence.

The terms of reference for the review state it is independent, and Charlie Taylor explained via Twitter that he is working on the review “in an independent capacity”. It will be interesting to see whether the Youth Justice Board itself has made a submission given one of its statutory functions is to advise government on custodial institutions.

The Youth Justice Board has a shameful history of failing to stand up for children. Four months before Adam died, another child, Gareth Myatt, died of positional asphyxia following restraint by three G4S officers in Rainsbrook secure training centre. Information released to their families’ lawyers showed there had been widespread unlawful restraint. In breach of the statutory rules governing restraint in secure training centres, officers had been restraining children — including through the use of pain — to make them follow orders. The government’s response was to change the rules. Behind-the-scenes, the then chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, Ellie Roy, wrote to G4S and Serco directors telling them:

“I want to reassure you that the YJB has been working closely with the Ministry of Justice and previously the Home Office to amend the secure training centre rules in line with previous consultation with yourselves. I am advised that changes are imminent. In the meantime, it is your responsibility to ensure that the use of force within your establishment is being carried out lawfully.”

The Court of Appeal quashed the amended rules because they breached children’s human rights. Before this happened, however, the Youth Justice Board undertook a PR exercise promoting the increased restraint powers. It published a Q and A document, which asked whether any alternatives to pain-inducing restraint existed.

The Board could have described the approaches used by professionals working in health, social care and education settings, where pain-inducing techniques are not permitted. Instead, it gave this feeble answer:

“Sadly not. If staff in STCs [secure training centres] were unable to bring indiscipline under control within their own resources, one alternative might be to call in police or prison service assistance. Each of these agencies would use pain compliant techniques as a first resort, and may use other tools such as pepper spray. The Youth Justice Board would not consider this to be best child care practice, and consequently takes the view that care staff in the STCs must be properly skilled and empowered.”

As well as being trained to inflict pain-inducing restraint, officers are taught personal safety techniques for serious incidents. In May this year, I submitted an FOI request asking for the names of these techniques, how often they are used and whether they involve the deliberate infliction of pain.

I was told information about the use of personal safety techniques on children in prison is not collected centrally.

The Justice Minister Edward Argar subsequently told parliament his department does gather this information. But his officials maintain data is not available and they have therefore issued a bulk refusal to every question. This even includes my request for a copy of the form which officers must complete after they have used force on a child.

Just this week, the Ministry of Justice has further refused a separate FOI request for a copy of the safeguarding policies which each child prison must produce. Its own departmental instruction tells prisons these policies must be published. ‘Law enforcement’ is the exemption the government is relying upon. In 2012, the High Court found that children in secure training centres were unlawfully restrained for a decade, with the judge stating: “The children and young persons sent to STCs were sent there because they had acted unlawfully and to learn to obey the law, yet many of them were subject to unlawful actions during their detention. I need, I think, say no more”.

Adam Rickwood.
Adam Rickwood.
Courtesy of Adam's family.

And there stands the inequality of arms between detained children and successive governments unwilling to uphold their basic right to protection. Since Adam’s death an overwhelming number of bodies have opposed pain-inducing restraint.

They include:

  • UN Committee on the Rights of the Child,
  • UN Committee Against Torture,
  • European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,
  • Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights,
  • Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights,
  • UK’s four Children’s Commissioners,
  • Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons,
  • Equality and Human Rights Commission,
  • Association of Directors of Children’s Services,
  • Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health,
  • NSPCC.

Five months ago, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse concluded that pain-inducing restraint is a form of child abuse which must be prohibited by law. The inquiry warned that:

“Pain compliance contributes to a culture of fear and has the effect of silencing the child at a time when it is important that the child feels safe to speak out about aspects of their lives, including sexual abuse.”

Ministers recently published their response though there was no decision on pain-inducing restraint, which is awaiting Charlie Taylor’s report. We are used to government outsourcing services, but not child protection policies. That ministers haven’t even decided for themselves whether to accept the inquiry’s conclusion that pain-inducing restraint is a form of child abuse is a serious dereliction of their obligations to children.

A former interim chair of the Youth Justice Board, Graham Robb, once referred to the “hysterical nature of the debate” around pain-inducing restraint. But training up staff to deliberately hurt children is a deeply emotional matter. It was feelings — shock, disgust, empathy, upset, anger, kindness and compassion — that led the Victorians to pass the first legislation against child abuse and which, in the 1980s and 1990s, ended corporal punishment in children’s homes and schools. Adam Rickwood knew what it felt like to be the victim of pain-inducing restraint, and his moral outrage was evident in his questioning of the officers who restrained him. In the hours between the restraint and his suicide, Adam wrote a note to his solicitor:

“When the other staff came they all jumped on me and started to put my arms up my back and hitting me in the nose. I then tried to bite one of the staff because they were really hurting my nose. My nose started bleeding and swelled up and it didn't stop bleeding for about one hour and afterwards it was really sore. When I calmed down I asked them why they hit me in the nose and jumped on me. They said it was because I wouldn't go in my room so I said what gives them the right to hit a 14-year-old child in the nose and they said it was restraint.”

Five years after Adam’s death, a High Court judge was to pronounce: “There was no right to hurt such a child in these circumstances”.

When pain-inducing restraint is finally prohibited, as it surely will be, Adam Rickwood must be remembered for being the person — a 14 year-old child — who directly challenged this violent and inhumane treatment and for writing an account which has fuelled a long, drawn-out battle for child protection and the defence of children’s human rights.

Edited by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData