In England nobody is counting. How official secrecy and obfuscation on sexual abuse, restraint and injury put children at risk. See also Five more arrests and another critical inspection report for G4S child prisons.
A ground-breaking review of child abuse was published last month. It describes children being coerced, controlled, humiliated, intimidated, degraded and bullied. Children who complained of mistreatment were not believed because there was no CCTV evidence to back them up. Self-harming children were watched even when taking a shower or visiting the toilet. Punishments included banning children from eating in the dining room. This was the report of the Medway Improvement Board, established by justice minister Michael Gove in the wake of BBC Panorama’s programme, ‘Teenage Prison Abuse Exposed’, about the G4S-run prison for 12 to 17 year-olds.
The Improvement Board’s investigation is impressive on many counts, though what is striking is that this could have been a report about a school, a hospital or a children’s home, about your children or mine. The metanarratives of child prisoners being violent, damaged and out of control are to the margins of this report, and the dominant representations are of children in search of dignity, safety, fairness and adults they can trust.
One young person told the board of an incident where a child who self-harmed “was left in his room with like nothing and he couldn’t speak English and he doesn’t know where his family are so he was just all alone with no-one and nothing”. The board observes the “irony that a young person being held in an STC [secure training centre] was able to articulate this concern, but that all of the professionals … did not seem to understand the impact of such a policy”.
I am a children’s rights campaigner and registered social worker, with a long record of pressing for laws and polices that uphold the dignity and worth of children. Since I served on Lord Carlile’s independent inquiry into the use of physical restraint, solitary confinement and forcible strip searching of children in prisons, I have submitted several hundred freedom of information (FOI) requests on various aspects of child incarceration.
This is more than 11 years of politely asking public bodies to publish material the layperson might assume was already in the public domain. Information that would be useful to families, social workers and youth offending team workers visiting children in prison, to help raise awareness of the dangers and hopefully prompt safeguarding conversations that would otherwise not occur. Judges passing custodial sentences, and remanding to custody, could be reasonably expected, also, to keep abreast of what actually happens to children ‘sent down’. Then there are the wider goals of holding the powerful to account, and standing up for children.
So I have asked about sexual assaults, strip-searching, self-harm, restraint injuries, abuse allegations, complaints, sackings, damages paid to child prisoners, and sought the publication of internal reports on children’s bones breaking during restraint. Every response is meant to be published on official websites (it’s not always); my book, Children behind bars, organises the material into different chapters according to the harm caused to children.
Each new response invariably elicits an emotional reaction. First, there is the upset that comes from imagining vulnerable children in situations of powerlessness and fear. Second, incredulity that we subject children to such treatment, and amazement too when I am told, frequently, that vital data is collected by nobody.
Next comes dismay at the public servants who use their human ingenuity to maintain secrecy. Sometimes I feel sad, dumbfounded and disgusted all at once, like when I was sent data on sexual assaults in juvenile young offender institutions. I asked for the number of assaults between 2009 and 2013. The table provided, minus any actual figures, showed sexual assaults by child prisoners had occurred at least once every year, but the frequency was masked by asterisk marks.
The justification? Low numbers and fear of breaching data protection legislation, a reason I’ve been given many times before. Indeed, G4S invoked the same excuse when refusing the Youth Justice Board monitor at Medway unfettered access to CCTV footage, a position the Improvement Board inevitably found to be legally untenable.
Accessing sexual assaults data in respect of officers proved impossible, since I was told: “The assaults data does not specifically include a category for sexual assaults by staff on prisoners.”
Information about officers assaulting children was buried in the ‘other’ category and a single asterisk mark indicated at least one occurrence in 2010.
Presumably this was not the officer with a 30-year career in the prison service who sexually assaulted a boy “at every opportunity” when the child was incarcerated at Warren Hill Young Offenders Institution, because these crimes occurred in 2008 (though the officer was jailed in 2010)? Did the incident occur at Downview women’s prison, I pondered, because separate FOIs had elicited at least one child had been sexually abused there?
What I could be sure of was that the one or more incidents in 2010 did not tally with the separate data I obtained from the prisons inspectorate. This revealed that children had told inspectors on 15 separate occasions they had been sexually abused by prison staff — these allegations were made in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.
In another FOI, which went to internal review (the process to follow when FOIs are refused), I was told six officers had been disciplined for an “inappropriate relationship with a prisoner/ex prisoner” in child prisons, in 2011/12 and 2012/13.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 created a new offence of abuse of position of trust, so the prison service’s terminology is archaic. Even before 2003, you would be hard-pushed to find a childcare setting where a staff member having an “inappropriate relationship” with a child would be seen as anything other than sexual exploitation.
This appalling cloaking of abuse by the prison service will, I expect, be of great interest to the Goddard Inquiry into institutions’ failure to protect children from sexual abuse.
That no single statutory body collates children’s complaints of abuse cannot, of course, wait for Dame Lowell Goddard’s conclusions in several years’ time. This must change immediately.
Not all of the disclosures I have obtained would invite condemnation from human rights bodies or be of interest to undercover reporters. But they are unsettling.
Take the report I obtained from the Youth Justice Board, which was an independent review of food in young offender institutions for children aged 15 to 17. This revealed that five of nine child prisons didn’t have their own kitchen: food was prepared and transported from adjoining adult prisons.
How could it be possible, in 2013, for an institution looking after children 24 hours a day not to have a kitchen? That’s shocking to me.
A visit to Serco-run Hassockfield secure training centre, in Durham, as a member of the Carlile Inquiry team, got me started on FOI requests. The centre director showed us a form on which custody officers recorded their use of “distractions” — the official euphemism for severe assaults to a child’s nose, ribs or thumb.
I thought we had uncovered a major abuse scandal, right there on our very first visit, until the director assured us these were, in fact, officially authorised restraint techniques. To be lawful, they could be applied only in extremely grave situations when no other intervention was possible.
My first FOI revealed
these extreme, last resort techniques were used 768 times in a single year in
four secure training centres. They were routine, in other words.
Three years passed before the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), the charity I then ran, achieved full disclosure of the training manual which showed many other violent restraint methods. One of the reasons given by the Youth Justice Board against publication was that animal rights activists and political extremists could get hold of the manual, and develop restraint countermeasures.
The Information Commissioner’s Office ordered full disclosure, but the Youth Justice Board appealed. A few days before the tribunal hearing, we got a call to say the manual would be published, after all. It was uploaded onto the Ministry of Justice website in October 2010.
Then, in July 2012, a new system of behaviour management in child prisons, called Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint (MMPR), was launched. The manual containing the MMPR restraint techniques has 182 redactions.
By this time, I had left CRAE and was researching Children behind bars. I requested full disclosure of the techniques and, nearly four years later, I am presently seeking leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal.
The same assertions made between 2007 and 2010 — that prisoners would use the information to subvert restraint and therefore prison security — have been recycled by the Ministry of Justice. This is despite former Labour ministers accepting the recommendation that children, parents and carers be informed of restraint methods (rec 43, page 15), made by the independent review it established after the restraint-related deaths of two children.
My legal representation is pro bono to date and I pay all of my own travel and other expenses. The taxpayer fully funds the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Ministry of Justice. There has never been any answer to my argument that statutory safeguarding bodies and professionals cannot effectively monitor the use of restraint, or investigate children’s complaints, without knowledge of the official techniques.
Prisons are required to report to a national team restraints that cause children to lose consciousness, struggle to breathe, vomit and suffer other symptoms of asphyxiation, or be seriously injured. In May 2015, I requested the two annual reports that had been compiled to date. The Ministry of Justice released the first report but said the 2014/15 one would be finalised in July, so I made a second request in August. It was still not ready, so I asked again in November.
The following month, a heavily redacted report arrived in my inbox. Who, I wonder, was given the task of blanking out virtually every reference to child harm? The official excuse for this obfuscation was that the Youth Justice Board planned to publish the statistics at the end of January 2016.
But, to my frustration, when the annual youth justice statistics were released on 28 January they didn’t contain the anticipated data. Only a limited number of restraint injuries were included; statistics about children’s breathing being compromised were absent altogether. My request to the ministry for an internal review was met with silence, so I complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office. I received the report in April 2016, 11 months after the first request. The date on the front cover, June 2015, proved it had been finalised at the time of my second request.
A covering letter claimed the data had been incorporated into the routinely published annual statistics. This was simply untrue: these figures have never included warning signs, and restraint injuries only become candidates for routine publication if children were taken to hospital or received medical treatment within the prison.
When children are injured during restraint but receive no medical intervention, these incidents are kept from the official statistics. This is why the Observer newspaper was able to report in February that the Youth Justice Board had omitted 3,312 child restraint injuries from its published figures between 2010 and 2014.
The incident in G4S-run Rainsbrook secure training centre, discovered by inspectors in February 2015, when a child with a fractured wrist caused by restraint was left for 15 hours before being taken to hospital, comes to mind.
The report eventually released to me shows there were 65 serious restraint incidents in 2014/15, with 71 warning signs and symptoms, a 31% increase on the previous year (with the same number of prisons). There were 37 incidents when a child had difficulty breathing or complained of being unable to breathe in 2014/15; 4 serious physical injuries; 6 incidents when a child vomited whilst kept under restraint; 8 incidents when restraint led to a petechial rash (haemorrhage); 11 incidents when a child lost consciousness or suffered reduced consciousness; and 5 incidents listed as ‘other’.
Guardian newspaper published the data under the headline, ‘Restraint injuries persist at youth jail where boy died 12
referring to the restraint death of 15 year-old Gareth Myatt in G4S-run
Rainsbrook. A week after this newspaper coverage, the prisons minister,
Andrew Selous, said this in answer to a parliamentary question tabled four months before:
“Since the SIWS [serious incidents and warning signs] system has only been rolled out in a few institutions gradually, this is not currently routinely published but we are considering the routine publication of all SIWS data in the future.”
That the government is now “considering” regular release of the data shows the value of persistence. It also screams institutional inertia — still thinking about routine publication after 11 months of FOI to-ing and fro-ing, parliamentary prodding and a Panorama programme which shocked the nation?
Transparency is a critical child protection tool because it allows circuits of collusion (conscious and unconscious) to be broken. The greater the secrecy, the more children are at risk.
I felt tearful turning the pages of the Medway Improvement Board’s report. This is the first official document, out of the many hundreds I’ve read, where child prisoners are discussed as if they really are children, with the same fundamental rights as those enjoying life in the community. The report firmly rejects the received wisdom that punishment and subjugation bring about change; and it truthfully and skillfully lays bare the failures of adults. With not a single redacted word.
- The top image is a composite, comprising 3 redactions. All other images show text and redactions from:
- Ministry of Justice National Offender Management Service documents: Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint (MMPR)
- Annual Report on Serious Injuries and Warning Signs and Medical Exceptions Report.