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Two dead boys, UK state secrecy and the long fight for transparency on restraint

An official manual governs the use of restraint on children in custody. It was published with 182 redactions. Carolyne Willow campaigns for transparency. This week the Court of Appeal hears her case. 

image by @ReeceWykes

Thirteen years ago two boys died after being restrained by staff in English prisons run by G4S and Serco. Both boys had been in care and lived in children’s homes.

The restraint techniques approved for use in child prisons aren’t open to full public scrutiny. I’ve spent five years challenging that. This week the Court of Appeal will hear my case.

Why does this matter?

Fifteen year-old Gareth Myatt died of positional asphyxia after three G4S custody officers forcibly held him down in a seated position and bent his upper body towards his thighs and knees. They ignored his cries that he couldn’t breathe. He had been admitted to Rainsbrook secure training centre near Rugby on a Friday and was dead the following Monday. At the inquest into Gareth’s death, a document was produced showing the nicknames of G4S restraint trainers. They included Clubber, Mauler, Crusher and Breaker. 

Gareth Myatt

Fourteen year-old Adam Rickwood took his own life after he was unlawfully restrained for refusing to go to his cell. Adam was inflicted with the ‘nose distraction’, a restraint technique that involves a severe blow to the nose. He left behind a note saying he had asked officers what gave them the right to hit a child on the nose. Several years later, a judge declared there was no right to hit a child in these circumstances.

The deaths of these two very vulnerable boys in 2004 shone a light on the terrible treatment of child prisoners. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England (which I then ran) asked the government to scrutinise the restraint records of G4S and Serco to identify and then inform individuals who may have been unlawfully restrained as children. The government refused.

Adam Rickwood

We pursued a judicial review and lost our claim that ministers were duty-bound to undertake this remedial action. However, neither the government nor the prison companies challenged the evidence of widespread unlawful restraint starting from when the secure training centres first opened, in the late 1990s. In a damning judgment, which revealed for the first time the extent of abusive regimes, Foskett J concluded:

“I do not think that there is any true or realistic alternative to the conclusion (a) that probably up until July 2008 (and possibly, though unlikely, for another two years thereafter) there was widespread unlawful use of restraint within the STC [secure training centre] system and many children and young persons were subjected to such restraint and (b) that very few, if any, of those who were subject to such unlawful restraint appreciated at the time that it was unlawful [91].” [Emphasis added]. 

Fight for transparency, 2007-2010 

As well as that legal battle for justice for children unlawfully restrained, we pressed for disclosure of the manual showing the restraint techniques used by G4S and Serco officers. We argued transparency was essential for child protection and this would help right the wrongs of the past. The evidence was on our side.

Of particular importance were the recommendations of an independent review of restraint established by ministers after the inquests into the deaths of Gareth and Adam. Among the review’s 58 recommendations was this one:

Establishments should inform children and their parents or carers, of their restraint policy, methods used and safeguards in place.”  [Emphasis added].

The government accepted this call for transparency.

image by @ReeceWykes

Our freedom of information request was made to the Youth Justice Board. It refused disclosure on the grounds that children would develop countermeasures and adult prisoners would use the information to usurp prison officer control. We were told political prisoners and animal rights extremists might make use of the manual.

The Information Commissioner supported the Children’s Rights Alliance for England’s arguments for disclosure and ordered the Youth Justice Board to release the manual minus the redactions. The Youth Justice Board challenged this decision and the case was due to be heard at a tribunal. Days before the scheduled hearing, the Youth Justice Board contacted us to say it would hand over the full manual.

That was in July 2010, and a revised manual was subsequently published without any redactions on the Ministry of Justice’s website and placed in the House of Commons Library. We had received a hard copy of the manual before general publication, reviewed it with our lawyer and submitted our intent to legally challenge those aspects that we considered to be unlawful. In response, the Ministry of Justice amended the manual before making it widely available.

Secrecy reinstated

Fast forward to July 2012, and the Ministry of Justice’s publication of a new manual of restraint techniques to be used in secure training centres and young offender institutions. Only the manual wasn’t published in full – it contains 182 redactions. The then Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke told the Commons:

The new system is a major step forward in improving the way young people are safeguarded in the under-18 secure estate. A comprehensive programme of work has resulted in a new system of restraint that has been specifically designed for use on young people in custody.” [Emphasis added].

The new system is called Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint (MMPR). It was developed in response to the independent restraint review. Given the desperately high level of need among child prisoners – one-third of children arrive into custody from the care system – devising a new system of techniques and approaches to minimise restraint was always going to be a demanding task. But the restraint techniques weren’t formulated by experts in childhood trauma, disability and child mental health. The National Training Response Group – the “elite” squad which deals with prison disturbance and riots – was commissioned to develop the MMPR system. The officers and the equipment they use are shown here in a video published by The Sun newspaper in October 2017 under the headline “Screw Dares Wins”:

An advisory group chaired by leading child psychiatrist Sue Bailey was asked to review the techniques: it reported that “the sole or primary purpose is the inducing of pain in one-third of them. A substantial number of organisations and bodies — including the UN Committee Against Torture, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights and the UK’s four Children’s Commissioners — have urged the UK to stop allowing prison officers to deliberately inflict pain on children during restraint.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons undertook a review of the new system, publishing its findings in November 2015. The then Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, explains in the report’s foreword the genesis of MMPR:

“The introduction of MMPR was the culmination of a long process initiated following the deaths of two boys in 2004. Gareth Myatt died after he became unconscious during a restraint in an STC. ‘If you can talk, you can breathe’, an officer told him when he complained. It was not true. Adam Rickwood, aged 14, hung himself after a ‘pain compliance’ technique was applied to him. This was the ‘nose distraction technique’, a painful jab under the base of the nose.”

A successful legal challenge to a rule change on restraint was part of the “long process” the Chief Inspector of Prisons was no doubt referring to. It was during these proceedings that Buxton LJ observed

“We were told that the hold used on Gareth Myatt was no longer approved; and that the nose distraction technique used on Adam Rickwood had also been withdrawn. I will be forgiven for wondering whether there are any other techniques awaiting withdrawal only when something goes wrong [73].”

Fight for transparency, 2012-

On seeing the new manual had 182 redactions, I asked around to see if others might be pursuing disclosure. On finding there were no such plans, I made an FOI request myself. I had by now left the Children’s Rights Alliance for England and was preparing to write a book about the mistreatment of child prisoners.

The Information Commissioner this time supported the Ministry of Justice’s arguments against disclosure. Even though these are virtually identical to the claims made by the Youth Justice Board a decade ago (the line about political prisoners and animal rights extremists has been dropped).

The Ministry of Justice offered no concrete evidence in support of its claim that disclosure would compromise security.

The Ministry of Justice offered no concrete evidence in support of its claim that disclosure would compromise security and endanger the health of children, staff and visitors.

It gave data on the frequency of restraint and asserted children in young offender institutions are larger and more prone to violence than in secure training centres (official statistics show restraint, assault and self-harm are more prevalent among younger children in custody).

It told the Information Commissioner that security had been compromised “due to prisoners already copying techniques learned from experience” though didn’t explain how removing the 182 redactions would make any difference to this.

The Ministry of Justice submitted no analysis of the impact of the full disclosure of restraint techniques used in G4S and Serco-run secure training centres. These had been in the public domain for a little under two years when I made my FOI request. Since the Youth Justice Board had years before argued the disclosure of that manual would jeopardise prison security and even endanger the health and safety of members of the public, I had assumed the Ministry of Justice would be pressed to provide evidence of, or at least be made to reflect upon, the actual impact of transparency. This hasn’t happened.

The Ministry of Justice has consistently argued that the restraint techniques in the new manual are designed for children aged 12 to 17, and stresses the one released in 2010 was originally aimed at 12 to 14 year-olds. This is disingenuous: by the time the ‘old’ manual was published it had been revised a number of times and children older than 14 had been detained in secure training centres for many years (Gareth Myatt was aged 15). Moreover, a key part of the Ministry of Justice’s argument is that the new manual contains techniques that are the same or similar to those used in adult prisons. The first-tier tribunal found this to be “decisive” in its decision to maintain non-disclosure.

Let’s recall the Secretary of State’s description of the new manual as being designed “specifically” for children. The redacted manual of techniques notes itself (page 9):

The techniques contained within Volume 5 – Physical Restraint, have been designed for use on young people whose ages range from 12 – 17.”

Other FOI requests I have made subsequently, on behalf of Article 39 children’s rights charity, have revealed that the MMPR techniques have also been authorised for use on children restrained on aircraft during deportation. These are likely to be very young children. Escort officers taking children to/from secure children’s homes have also been trained to use the techniques: children in these circumstances can be as young as 10.

image by @ReeceWykes

One of the strands of my appeal is that the best interests of children were not treated as a primary consideration by the Information Commissioner and the two tribunals which supported non-disclosure. Why should child protection be weakened because a set of restraint techniques said to have been devised especially for children turns out to be the same or similar to those used in adult prisons? There is relevant case law emphasising that children should not suffer detriment for the shortcomings of adults.

I have offered considerable evidence that disclosure is vital for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of very vulnerable children and protecting their human rights. I submitted detailed expert evidence from the NSPCC’s Chief Advisor on Child Protection, the then Chair of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers and the then Chair of the Secure Accommodation Network.

This evidence meticulously describes the extensive safeguards that have evolved over the past three decades to protect children in institutional settings. These safeguards depend upon openness and transparency. For example, after the death of Gareth Myatt the coroner conducting his inquest wrote to the then Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, urging that children’s own perspective on restraint be sought after each incident. This is in line with practice in social care and health settings.

The coroner’s recommendation led to the Youth Justice Board requiring prisons to conduct ‘debriefs’ with children, and it latterly extended the scope of independent advocates so they are proactively available to assist children post-restraint. While the redactions remain in place, advocates cannot answer the most basic question often asked by children: “Are they allowed to do that?”.

Restraint often heightens children’s anger, fear and frustration. They become more out of control.

It is implausible that children will obtain, study, digest and be able to use the manual to thwart the use of physical restraint by a group of physically strong adults who are trained to apply techniques and who may well be wearing personal protective equipment.

I recall reading about the case of a child with learning disabilities restrained by prison officers for smashing up his cell furniture. The prison service review of this and five other incidents (where children suffered broken bones during restraint) notes the “back hammer” form of restraint was used (where a child’s wrists are ‘locked’ behind their back). This was found to be “inappropriate” and the review questioned whether sufficient effort had been made to de-escalate the situation.

Despite these concerns, officers were criticised for not wearing “Full Protective Equipment”. Such equipment includes a riot helmet, flame-retardant overalls, gloves, belt, side arm baton and holder, shin guards, elbow protectors, boots, flame-retardant balaclava and a shield cover.

Assuming children had access to the full manual and have the interest, concentration and literacy levels to follow the detail — most have the reading age of a primary school child —how might they use it to subvert security? The use of force must be a last resort when alternative methods have failed. Children in these situations are invariably extremely distressed. Successive research into children’s experiences of restraint show that it often heightens their anger, fear and frustration. They become more out of control. These are not situations where children are acting calmly and rationally.

Another research finding is that children have clear, and frequently painful, memories of restraint. The experience of being restrained tells children about restraint.

It must be for adults in safeguarding roles — social workers, independent reviewing officers, advocates, complaints officers, monitors, inspectors for instance — to carefully consider the contents of the manual. Through this process, potential risks to individual children — I’m thinking here of those with medical conditions, disabled children, children who have been subject to physical and/or sexual violence in the past and pregnant girls — can be identified. When children make complaints about restraint (after the BBC Panorama exposé of serious alleged abuse in the G4S-run Medway secure training centre, the company disclosed 40 child protection allegations had been passed to the local authority during the previous year), the manual of techniques would be an essential reference document for investigators.

BBC Panorama "Teenage Prison Abuse Exposed" January 2016
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons made 10 recommendations after it reviewed the MMPR system. It said children must not be strip-searched under restraint (they still are) and pain-inducing techniques must not be used on children (they still are). Its last recommendation concerns monitoring. Local safeguarding children boards and councils were told to “ensure that they have sufficient expertise to enable effective independent oversight of restraint”. Effective independent oversight requires full knowledge of the techniques which have been approved for use on children, otherwise those monitoring are doing so with at least one eye closed.

I have never opposed the use of physical restraint in childcare settings or penal custody, when it is used lawfully and in a manner which seeks to uphold the child’s dignity and rights. I understand there will be rare, extreme incidents where the deliberate infliction of pain could be legally justified. But my FOI case is not about the training officers have been given to deal with grave scenarios. There is another, separate training programme and set of personal safety techniques for that. Officers are allowed to use these when it is impossible to apply MMPR techniques. 

In secure children’s homes and mental health units there is a legal and professional expectation of transparency in restraint methods and partnership working with children, parents and carers. Keeping children (and their parents and carers) in ignorance of restraint techniques unless and until they are used on them or other children is anathema to good childcare practice. Should my case succeed, I hope age-appropriate information about restraint methods will be routinely shared with children during and after they arrive in custody, as part of their individual plans for dealing with distress and conflict. Applying these professional norms to the most closed and hidden of institutions would be a great act of child protection. It would also demonstrate that the state continues to remember and learn from the appalling deaths of Gareth and Adam.

Carolyne’s case will be heard by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday 1 November. She writes in a personal capacity.

Edited by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light.

 

 

 

 


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