Article 39 has obtained data from local authorities showing there were more than 550 allegations of abuse and neglect in England’s seven child prisons over the past three years.
Whenever there is reasonable suspicion that a child is suffering significant harm, councils are required under the Children Act 1989 to investigate to see whether they need to take action to safeguard or promote their welfare. A successful legal challenge brought by the Howard League for Penal Reform in 2002 confirmed that this duty applies to child prisons.
Only half of the six councils with child prisons in their area provided information showing how many abuse and neglect allegations referred to them were substantiated. This adds further weight to the findings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which published its investigation into custodial institutions earlier this year. The inquiry found 1,070 alleged incidents of child sexual abuse between 2009 and 2017 but concluded that the lack of data and auditing by central and local government “obscures the true picture”.
Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:
“That only three of the six local authorities gave us sufficient data to establish levels of confirmed abuse or neglect makes us fearful that councils are still not taking their child protection obligations seriously for this group of very vulnerable children. At the very least, local authorities should be required by central government to regularly publish this kind of information.”
The information handed to Article 39 by three of the councils showed that 66 (43%) of 155 abuse or neglect allegations were deemed to be substantiated, which is where local authorities have sufficient evidence to prove what was alleged.
- Oakhill secure training centre, run by G4S in Milton Keynes, had the highest number of abuse and neglect findings.
- Of 98 allegations, over half (52) were found to be substantiated.
- Milton Keynes Council told Article 39 that 27 members of staff were the subject of police investigations between 2016 and 2019.
A separate freedom of information request to the Ministry of Justice revealed there were 359 prison restraint incidents in the past two years which resulted in children suffering serious injuries or compromised breathing. This means serious restraint incidents more than tripled between 2013/14 and 2018 (from 54 to 193).
- A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) report for the calendar year of 2018 shows that Oakhill secure training centre accounted for nearly a quarter of the child safety warnings – with 45 of the 193 incidents occurring there.
- The document we obtained from the MoJ does not signal in which prisons children suffered the different types of warning signs.
- However, it states that last year 124 children complained of being unable to breathe during or after restraint, 28 suffered breathing difficulties, 22 felt sick and 11 experienced lost or reduced consciousness. Seven children were seriously injured. In 14 incidents, a child abruptly or unexpectedly stopped struggling while under restraint.
“Child abuse is wrong wherever it occurs and these latest revelations show yet again that prisons are desperately unsafe places for children. Nearly three years ago, Ministers agreed that children should be moved out of prisons, yet not a single institution has been closed. If families or children’s homes were subjecting children to this level of risk, they would have child protection social workers knocking at their doors. Every child, no matter where they live, has the right to feel and be safe. If you cannot provide this basic level of security, then there is simply no chance of turning around a child’s life.”
In 2004, a 15 year-old child, Gareth Myatt, died following restraint by three G4S custody officers in Rainsbrook secure training centre, in Northamptonshire. He told them he couldn’t breathe and he vomited and defecated before losing consciousness. The officers later said they thought Gareth was lying when he complained of being unable to breathe. During restraint training, officers had been given a codeword (OXO) to shout if they were struggling to breathe or in pain, which would immediately stop the use of force.
Another child, 14 year-old Adam Rickwood, also died following restraint in 2004. Four officers unlawfully restrained him in the then Serco-run Hassockfield secure training centre, in Durham. He was inflicted with a sharp blow to the nose, which was then an approved restraint technique. His nose bled for an hour and the prison refused his requests to go to hospital. Adam hanged himself hours later, leaving behind a note saying he had asked officers what gave them the right to hit a child in the nose, and they called it restraint.
After the boys’ deaths, the then Labour government introduced a new programme of restraint in child prisons, called Minimising and Managing Physical Restraint (MMPR). The expert panel set up to review the techniques ahead of the rollout warned that the ‘head hold’ carried significant risks and gave its approval only on condition a research project would be established to find an alternative. Eight years later, the report obtained by Article 39 shows MoJ officials are concerned about its misapplication and the frequency of children saying they cannot breathe when in the head hold. A further review of the technique has therefore been set up, though there has been no public announcement of this.
These latest findings come as Article 39 awaits the outcome of a review of pain-inducing restraint in child prisons. In January 2019, the High Court stayed an application for judicial review pending this investigation and an inquiry by parliament’s human rights committee. The committee, chaired by Harriet Harman MP, reported in April 2019 and urged the withdrawal of all pain-inducing techniques in child prisons and during transit to and from custodial institutions. At least 25 other bodies have called for prohibition, including the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the UN Committee Against Torture, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UK’s four Children’s Commissioners. Taylor’s report was due to be published in October 2019.
- The three councils which provided full figures on the outcomes of investigations were: Leeds City Council (Wetherby juvenile young offender institution), Milton Keynes Council (Oakhill secure training centre) and Staffordshire Council (Werrington juvenile young offender institution).
- The three councils which did not release full figures on the outcomes of investigations were: the London Borough of Hounslow (Feltham juvenile young offender institution), Medway Council (Medway secure training centre and Cookham Wood juvenile young offender institution) and Northamptonshire Council (Rainsbrook secure training centre).
- The total number of abuse or neglect allegations referred to the local authorities was 557. The breakdown of this is:
– Leeds City Council: 47 allegations between 2016/17 and 2018/19
– London Borough of Hounslow: 199 allegations between 2016/17 and 2018/19
– Medway Council: stated it would have to review 69 individual case files, so we have taken this figure to mean at least 69 allegations
– Milton Keynes Council: 98 allegations between 2016/17 and 2018/19
– Northamptonshire Council: 134 allegations between 2017 and 2019 (we were told that 49 of these specifically concerned restraint)
– Staffordshire Council: 10 allegations between 2016/17 and 2018/19
- Article 39 previously requested the same data in 2015, similarly for the preceding three-year period. Responses were as follows:
– Leeds City Council: didn’t have data to hand; said it would take more than 18 hours to retrieve
– London Borough of Hounslow: 82 allegations between 2012/13 and 2014/15
– Medway Council: didn’t have data to hand; said it would take more than 18 hours to retrieve
– Milton Keynes Council: 86 allegations between 2012/13 and 2014/15
– Northamptonshire Council: only had data for period Sept 2014 to 31/03/15 (25 allegations)
– Staffordshire Council: did not respond to the 2015 information request
- As of July 2018, G4S had not provided the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse with the documents requested about sexual abuse in Medway secure training centre and Rainsbroook secure training centre because “records are in storage”. (Counsel’s update here).
The Independent newspaper reported our FOI findings on 11 January 2020, exactly four years since a BBC Panorama programme showed serious physical and emotional abuse in Medway secure training centre, which was then run by G4S. Read the Independent piece here.