Pain finally banned as a form of restraint in child prisons – from February 2024

A Ministry of Justice policy document published last week, effective from February 2024, for the first time instructs staff working in child prisons that they “are not permitted to use restraint techniques which deliberately cause pain”.  When the policy is finally implemented, it will be nearly two decades since the death of 14 year-old Adam Rickwood at a Serco-run child prison in Durham

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“Despite a catalogue of serious harms suffered by highly vulnerable children, successive governments have refused to bring an end to this abusive treatment. Had ministers and the prison establishment listened properly to children nearly twenty years ago, and drawn a line in the sand after Adam’s preventable death, this policy change would not have dragged on to 2024. We will continue to closely monitor and hold government and institutions to account, since this is an area of policy replete with broken promises and catastrophic child protection failures.” 

Adam took his own life in August 2004, hours after being assaulted by four Serco officers. He left behind a note explaining he had asked officers what gave them the right to hit a child in the nose, and they said it was restraint. A second inquest into Adam’s death, which concluded in January 2011, found that he was unlawfully restrained, and the use of the so-called ‘nose distraction’ was also unlawful

The nose distraction was one of three techniques involving the deliberate infliction of severe pain that government authorised for use on children as young as 12 then detained in secure training centres run by G4S and Serco. Officers applied a sharp upward ‘karate chop’ to the base of the child’s nose. Nosebleeds and fractures were common injuries suffered by children. The other two techniques entailed officers forcefully ramming their fingers into a child’s rib cage (the ‘rib distraction’) and yanking back their thumb (the ‘thumb distraction’). 

It took more than three years for the use of the abusive nose distraction to be suspended after Adam’s death, and four years for it to be withdrawn permanently. However, prison officers continue to be authorised and trained in the use of pain-inducing techniques, notwithstanding widespread national and international condemnation, including from Council of Europe and UN anti-torture bodies and the UK’s four Children’s Commissioners. In February 2019, after receiving written and oral evidence from Article 39 and others, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) described pain-inducing techniques as “a form of child abuse” that subjugate children and make them less likely to report sexual abuse

The four methods still in use in child prisons today involve the infliction of severe pain to the area below a child’s ear (‘mandibular angle technique’), thumb (‘thumb flexion’) and wrist (‘wrist flexion’ and ‘inverted wrist hold’). They were used in 1,258 incidents last year. Article 39’s Director has gone as far as the European Court of Human Rights to try and force government to publish the precise details of these and other restraint techniques, but her fight for transparency has failed. Ministers have insisted that adult prisoners would rely on the information to subvert similar restraint techniques in adult prisons, even though government claims to have developed the methods specifically for children. 

The inverted wrist hold is by far the most commonly used to deliberately cause pain to children – accounting for 97 percent of incidents involving the infliction of pain in 2022/23. However, the prison service has not yet officially labelled it as a pain-inducing technique, despite conceding it causes “considerable pain and discomfort” and agreeing to recategorise it after an independent review concluded in June 2020 that it “causes sharp pain on the back of the hand and wrist” and had “become a pain-inducing technique in all but name”

Government established the restraint review, led by the now chief inspector of prisons Charlie Taylor, after Article 39 applied for a judicial review following the discovery that escort officers had been empowered to inflict pain on children during their journeys to secure children’s homes. Such treatment is banned within the local authority-run establishments themselves. The children’s rights charity also obtained an assurance from government that restraint would not be used by escort officers to make children follow orders; this is repeated in the new policy published last week. Critically, the Taylor review recommended that pain-inducing techniques should be removed as a form of restraint, and reserved for extremely grave incidents. The latest policy explains that common law principles will apply when pain has been used in emergency situations involving a threat to life or a risk of “a significant or life-changing injury”. It states that, “It is never acceptable to deliberately cause pain when a non-painful alternative can safely achieve the same objective”. 

In autumn 2021, Article 39 wrote to government ministers then in charge of child prisons and child protection – Victoria Atkins and Will Quince – strongly criticising many aspects of a draft version of the new use of force policy which, at that time, continued to authorise the infliction of pain as a form of restraint. 

Article 39 has spent the last few months pursuing a freedom of information request with the prison service in an effort to elicit the reasons behind officers inflicting pain. In its May 2023 response to IICSA’s final recommendations, which called again for a wholesale legal ban on pain-inducing techniques, the government claimed that every use is scrutinised by an independent restraint panel and a national team. Yet the charity has been repeatedly refused details about why they were used, the latest last week when the prison service claimed once again it would take officials more than three and a half days to locate the information from seven child prisons. Further protective legal action is being considered by Article 39, which will be writing to government with concerns about other aspects of the new use of force policy, including in relation to the use of waist restraint belts and handcuffs, and the dangers of children being restrained face down on the floor.