Earlier this month, Article 39 and others wrote to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland QC MP urging the release of children from prison wherever possible.
Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:
“Children need to be with their families or in care settings where their health and well-being can be secured and their fears and questions answered. It’s unconscionable that in a global pandemic a civilised society would keep hundreds of children incarcerated in institutions which in normal times are unable to keep them properly fed, safe and occupied. But this is not just about protecting children from serious harm; we’re also extremely worried about the risks to prison staff, their families and the wider community. These exceptional times demand standout political leadership across all parts of government: children who can be safely looked after in the community must be released.”
The Independent newspaper reported our joint letter here.
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.
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:
An inspection report published today (9 May) states the London Borough of Hounslow has improved its child protection scrutiny and action in response to abuse allegations from boys in Feltham prison. This has previously been an area of great concern for Article 39.
The report says inspectors “found examples of improvements to safeguarding practice as a direct result of the oversight provided by the local authority” and children who made abuse allegations were “well supported”.
In the six months prior to the inspection, which was undertaken between December and January 2018, 25 child protection referrals had been made to the local authority from the prison. Most of these related to the use of force and inspectors comment that all of them “were appropriate”. The report does not indicate the outcome of these referrals.
Inspectors report there had been 17 uses of pain-inducing restraint in six months. This is where officers deliberately inflict pain on children – a practice condemned by many bodies including the UN Committee Against Torture.
The segregation unit remained a “grim environment”:
Cells [in the segregation unit] were stark and poorly furnished and many were dirty. Communal areas were dirty and shabby. Conditions in the special accommodation cells (stark, unfurnished cells with no beds, toilets or sinks) were particularly grim. Use of these cells had reduced since the last inspection from 14 to four instances, but we were not assured that use was justified on every occasion…
Staff treated boys well and we saw examples of angry boys being dealt with patiently by calm officers. However, the regime was impoverished and remained punitive. Boys had limited access to telephone calls, showers and exercise which mirrored poor regimes in adult segregation units. Boys were not permitted televisions and had little access to education facilities.
Most boys in other parts of the prison were allowed out of their cells just seven hours a day. They could exercise only 30 minutes every morning. Boys were not always able to have a shower or make a telephone call every day.
Of 25 recommendations relating to children’s safety made at the last inspection, early in 2017, 14 (56%) had been achieved, 9 (36%) had not been achieved and 2 (8%) were partially achieved.
Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:
“Despite some improvements in child protection scrutiny, the reality remains that boys are incarcerated in conditions utterly unsuitable for children. While reading the report, especially the section on Feltham’s segregation unit, the thought once again came into my mind that these graphic descriptions of the harms inflicted on children will appear one day in an official inquiry report. People will look back in shock and shame that we ever treated children this way.”
The British Medical Association, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of Psychiatrists have issued a joint position statement calling for the prohibition of solitary confinement in child prisons and secure children’s homes. The health bodies say:
“There is an unequivocal body of evidence on the profound impact solitary confinement can have on health and wellbeing.
Various studies indicate an increased risk of suicide or self-harm amongst those placed in solitary confinement.
As children are still in the crucial stages of developing socially, psychologically, and neurologically, there are serious risks of solitary confinement causing long-term psychiatric and developmental harm.
There is also clear evidence that it is counter-productive. Rather than improving behaviour, solitary confinement fails to address the underlying causes, and creates problems with reintegration.
For these reasons, there is a growing international consensus – from groups including the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture – that solitary confinement should never be used on children and young people.
In light of its potential to cause harm, and in the absence of compelling evidence for its use, we call for an end to the use of solitary confinement on children and young people detained in the youth justice system.”
Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:
“There is absolutely no justification for this cruel and normalised practice of physically and psychologically isolating children. Solitary confinement causes terrible suffering and police, health and social care agencies would be knocking down doors to help children escape such treatment in any other setting.”