Month: December 2019

Challenging secrecy in child prisons

Article 39 has today (6 December 2019) submitted a request for a freedom of information (FOI) internal review to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), which has refused to release details of very serious child abuse in an unnamed child prison.

Our probing follows the publication of the PPO’s annual report in October. It contained a summary of a very serious complaint made by a child – see below. The PPO investigation concluded the boy had been subject to excessive force, but the prison rejected this finding.

Taken from PPO annual report, published October 2019

Article 39 contends that the excessive force described here meets official definitions of physical and emotional abuse.

Article 39’s freedom of information request

We submitted an FOI request in October 2019 for the following:

1.       The name of the young offender institution in which this restraint incident took place.

2.       With any necessary redactions, a) a copy of the complaints investigation report pertaining to ‘Mr K’ and b) correspondence and documents showing the response of the young offender institution and the Youth Custody Service to your findings and recommendations.

3.       Indication as to whether the boy made the complaint to the PPO after he had left, or been moved from, the YOI in which the incident took place.

Our request for an internal review – as submitted to PPO today

There is a legitimate interest in disclosure of the above information (with necessary redactions) because it concerns the protection of vulnerable children in closed institutions. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s finding that excessive force had been used on the boy was rejected by the young offender institution. This could indicate inadequate safeguarding awareness and arrangements within the institution, which may put other children at risk of significant harm (see especially the governor’s safeguarding duties under s11 of the Children Act 2004). 

Excessive force of the kind described in your case study fits the definitions of physical and emotional abuse in the statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children (attached, pages 102-103). It may also have been a criminal offence.  

We draw your attention to the investigation by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which reported in February this year. It concluded: “Children are particularly vulnerable when placed in a closed institution where access to the outside world is necessarily restricted and those in authority are distrusted by the children themselves. It is all the more difficult to escape an abuser when there is nowhere to hide” (page 98 of attached report). 

As a registered charity promoting and protecting the rights of children in institutional settings, we have a legitimate interest in seeking information about the location of this disputed serious child abuse, the reasons the institution rejected your finding and what happened as a consequence (including any action by the Youth Custody Service). 

The Youth Custody Service’s own internal safeguarding review (published October 2019) included among its 100+ recommendations actions relating to complaints, including a proposal for a centralised register of recommendations by PPO and others, and improvements made as a consequence (report attached). Our FOI request reflects this call for transparency for the purposes of child safeguarding. The Youth Custody Service report states: “Evidence suggests that perceptions of procedural injustice can act as a driver for violence in custody, and conversely, perceived procedural justice can act as a driver for safety” (page 49). This speaks directly to our concern that the prison was able to reject your organisation’s finding: we want to understand why it was able to do so, the consequences for the child, and what, if any, wider safeguarding improvements arose from your investigation. 

Our third question is of legitimate interest because there is longstanding evidence of children being unable to complain about abuse in institutional settings while still living within the establishment where the abuse is taking place. The Government is currently preparing statutory guidance on Keeping Children Safe in Custody (following a recommendation of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse) and we are very keen to ensure that what happened to this boy, and the circumstances of him being able to make the complaint to your organisation, form part of the learning contributing to this statutory guidance.

As we indicated in the original request, we fully appreciate the need for redactions to protect the privacy of the boy and other affected individuals. However, we contend that there is a legitimate interest in the publication of the name of the prison in which you found this child had been subject to excessive force, and related information.

Documents referenced in our internal review request:

Working Together to Safeguard Children

IICSA’s investigation into sexual abuse in custodial institutions

Youth Custody Service’s Safeguarding Review