Category: Child prisons

Private companies and child prisons

Ministers have ducked a question about the risks to children of private companies running child prisons. A question was asked in Parliament by Lord Ramsbotham, following the serious abuse of children in G4S-run Medway secure training centre, which only came to the public’s attention through undercover filming by BBC Panorama.

Lord Ramsbotham asked:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have undertaken an analysis of the risks and benefits of profit-making companies managing custodial institutions in the light of the serious allegations against some members of the G4S staff at Medway Secure Training Centre and the subsequent transfer of that centre to government control.”

Conservative Life Peer, Lord Keen, answered for the Government in his capacity as Ministry of Justice spokesperson:

“The allegations at Medway STC are shocking and completely unacceptable. Decisive action has already been taken, which includes the appointment of a new centre manager and senior management team. G4S have been removed from the running of Medway and since 1 July the centre has been under new leadership.

“The safety and rehabilitation of young offenders is extremely important. We will be responding to the Charlie Taylor review with our plans for reform shortly.

“Well-run prisons are fundamental to the proper functioning of our justice system, and a vital part of our reform plans.

“Private providers play an important role in the prison estate. Performance of all providers is closely monitored and we will not hesitate to take action where standards fall short. Our providers are contractually required to cooperate with performance monitoring and audit by the Ministry.”

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, says:

“Secure training centres were an experiment in large multinationals running prisons for children as young as 12. After systemic abuse was exposed in the G4S-run Medway secure training centre, it was perfectly reasonable for Lord Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, to ask Ministers if they have analysed the costs and benefits of profit-making companies running child prisons. The question remains unanswered, so we must assume that no such investigation has taken place. Without an examination of how the pursuit of profit may have contributed, directly or indirectly, to child abuse in Medway secure training centre, there can be no assurance that children will be better protected in the future.”

G4S continues to run Oakhill secure training centre in Milton Keynes. The third centre, Rainsbrook, was taken from G4S’s management and handed to MTCnovo earlier this year. This followed very critical inspection reports. In November 2015, Article 39 wrote with the Howard League for Penal Reform and INQUEST to the Youth Justice Board with a dossier of concerns about the US-based company MTC.

G4S runs one of the five juvenile young offender institutions in England and Wales; the other four are run by the state. Children aged 15-17 are detained in young offender institutions.

Secure children’s homes presently detain the youngest and most vulnerable children, though many organisations, including Article 39, believe these should be used for all children who cannot be safely cared for in the community. This week, the Children’s Commissioner for England said she, supports the use of secure children’s homes where custody is absolutely necessary as these have a more caring ethos”. In July, Sir Martin Narey recommended that private providers be encouraged to “enter the secure care market”. All except one secure children’s home are run by local authorities, as part of their children’s services; the other is managed by a charity.

Lord Ramsbotham’s question (and the Ministry of Justice’s answer) can be viewed here.

More official evidence of child prison dangers

The Ministry of Justice has today released its latest statistics on safety in prisons.

In relation to boys and girls (aged 15 to 17), the data shows:

  • There were 393 self-harming incidents in 2015
  • Of the children who self-harmed, 171 were boys and 1 was a girl
  • 712 children were victims of assault in prison in 2015 (the number of assaults children suffered is not published)
  • There were 341 assaults on staff by boy prisoners in 2015.

The information released today also indicates that the child who passed away in Cookham Wood juvenile young offender institution last year died of natural causes.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, says:

“Today’s statistics add considerable weight to Charlie Taylor’s findings that prison officers work hard to protect children but do not have the skills, the expertise or the proper environment in which to achieve this. Behind each of these numbers is a distressed and frightened child who we have the power and the knowledge to help. One day we will look back in astonishment that we ever believed prison was a fit place for children.”

On the indication that a child died of natural causes in 2015, she added:

“What kind of society allows a child to die alone in a prison cell in an institution built to punish adults? This may have been comprehensible if it had occurred in 1815, but not 2015.”

Charlie Taylor is undertaking a review of youth justice for the Ministry of Justice. His interim report was published in February 2016.

Serious child protection concerns at child prison

Today’s inspection report on Wetherby juvenile young offender institution, which includes a specialist unit for children who find it impossible to cope in a mainstream prison, raises a catalogue of child protection concerns.

There were 272 boys in the prison at the time of the inspection. In the main prison, 29% of boys had formerly been looked after by local authorities; in the specialist Keppel Unit this was 42%.

Inspectors warned that:

  • Only one of 21 safety recommendations made at the last inspection, in January 2015, had been achieved
  • Two suicidal children were “kept for long periods in cells bare of furnishings and personal belongings”. One of the boys was made to wear strip-clothing at night. Inspectors said, “These sterile conditions gave too much priority to mitigating risk rather than providing a humane environment that promoted [children’s] wellbeing”
  • Two children had been strip-searched while held under restraint. The report explains, “This is one of the most invasive procedures that can be carried out by the state and an alternative should always be sought.” Neither of the incidents had been referred to the local authority for independent scrutiny
  • Inspectors could not assess whether strip-searching was appropriate (and therefore lawful) in the segregation unit, as its use was not recorded in the strip-searching log
  • The deliberate infliction of pain on children during restraint continued, despite repeated objections from the prisons inspectorate
  • Planned restraint was “rarely filmed’. This is especially alarming since body-worn cameras were one of the main child protection measures introduced in response to BBC Panorama’s undercover filming of physical abuse in G4S-run Medway secure training centre
  • 31% of children held in the main prison said staff had victimised them: 30 reported insulting remarks and 19 physical abuse
  • 38% of children held in the specialist unit said staff had victimised them: 6 reported insulting remarks, 6 physical abuse and 3 felt intimidated and threatened by prison officers
  • Life for children in the segregation unit was tantamount to neglect: “It consisted of a daily shower, 30 minutes’ exercise in a cage-like yard, meals delivered to the cell and a telephone call every other day. Only two out of seven residents on the unit at the time of the inspection were receiving education. None of the boys had sufficient activities to occupy them in their cells and radios were only issued to them during the inspection”
  • Only a quarter (26%) of children in the main prison said they could speak to an advocate when they need to
  • Less than a third (31%) of children in the specialist unit said they could speak to an advocate when they need to.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, says:

“How much more evidence do policy makers need that prisons are incapable of looking after children? This report tells us two children were held down by prison officers as their clothes were wrenched off their bodies; officers continue to deliberately inflict pain on children; 25 children reported physical abuse; officers working in the segregation unit do not even record strip-searches; suicidal children are kept in degrading conditions; and boys are allowed only 30 minutes outside in the fresh air each day, if they are lucky.

“Five months ago, Charlie Taylor issued his interim findings from his review of youth justice. He said his ambition was for smaller custodial establishments close to children’s families and communities. This latest inspection report should turn that ambition into a reality, and bring an end to the intolerable harm suffered by vulnerable children.”

Read the full report.


A damning report into G4S-run Medway secure training centre is published today, setting out in extensive detail the abject failure of a wide range of organisations, chief among them G4S and the Youth Justice Board (YJB).

The 61-page report brings into the public domain substantial new evidence of child abuse at Medway, and the ineptitude of agencies charged with monitoring, overseeing and advocating for the rights of children detained there. It was written by an Independent Improvement Board, established by Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, at the end of January. Specific findings include:

  • No single body has taken responsibility for safeguarding children at Medway secure training centre. The report describes a chain of statutory bodies, including the YJB and the Office of Children’s Commissioner, falsely believing children were safe because other agencies had not raised the alarm
  • Across a 7-year-period, prior to 2016, the Youth Justice Board received 35 separate letters of concern about children’s treatment in the three G4S secure training centres (Medway, Oakhill and Rainsbrook). Yet there was “very little evidence that a serious attempt had been made [by the YJB] to organise the accumulated evidence or analyse the data”
  • The YJB Monitor who had a legal duty to report concerns to the Justice Secretary was located by G4S in an office where she could not see children when they were in the outdoor space. G4S also prohibited the Monitor from viewing CCTV, which would show instances of restraint for example, claiming incorrectly this would breach data protection. Children interviewed as part of this independent review had no idea of the role of the Monitor
  • The independent advocacy service, managed by the children’s charity Barnardo’s, was not valued by children or rated by the Improvement Board. Advocacy services for children in residential settings were first established in the wake of the children’s homes scandals of the 1980s, and are meant to stand by children’s side at all times and robustly challenge abuses of their rights
  • Children who were seen to be self-harming were watched by custody officers even when they were in the shower. They were locked in bare cells, stripped of all possessions and made to wear ‘anti-suicide clothing’ – penal regimes that have been criticised for decades
  • Between February and October 2015, 14 child protection referrals were made to Medway Council. Not one of these was found to be substantiated. Children who reported abuse were sent letters by the Council, which dismissed their concerns citing insufficient CCTV evidence. For example, one child was told: “on seeing the CCTV we could not see much due to where the cameras were situated and therefore could not evidence what you said happened”. Another child was informed: “we have therefore concluded that the allegation of you being hurt by a member of staff is unsubstantiated, which means that we do not have any proof to evidence that the staff member had hurt you and we cannot tell either way what really happened”. The report underlines the silencing effect of such an approach, which does not reflect child protection practice in community settings
  • One child protection incident apparently involved seven members of Medway staff, yet the Independent Improvement Board could find “no paperwork”
  • Standard punishments included not allowing children to eat in the dining room, leaving them to eat meals alone in their locked cells
  • One of the responses of G4S to the BBC Panorama programme was to lobby the YJB for changes to restraint rules. This is exactly what the company did in 2006, in response to the restraint death of 15 year-old Gareth Myatt, who was held down in a seated position by three G4S officers who ignored his cries he couldn’t breathe. The YJB supported the multinational, the restraint rules were changed in 2007, and then they were quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2008 – because the changes risked children suffering serious human rights violations.

Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, had a one-to-one meeting with a member of the Improvement Board in February. She says:

“This report dignifies what children, families, the courts and campaigners have been saying for years. Medway secure training centre is unsafe and damaging, and other institutions with the same penal culture are similarly injurious to children. The Government’s interim response, to appoint a prison governor to run the centre, falls well short of the wisdom, knowledge and child-centredness shown by the Improvement Board. Medway must be closed; a serious case review established so that agencies can work out why they failed children; and coercive and controlling institutions rejected by all political parties from this point forward. This could be the watershed moment we have all been dreaming of.”

It’s been 122 days since the BBC Panorama’s exposé of physical and emotional abuse in G4S-run Medway secure training centre. The programme, ‘Teenage prison. Abuse exposed’ was broadcast on 11 January 2016. That same day, inspectors from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and Ofsted visited the child prison, interviewed 20 children, and their advice to the Justice Secretary was published on 26 January. The inspectorates advised the Government to immediately impose independent oversight of the centre, make officers wear body cameras and to establish “an enquiry into the failings at Medway and the implications of this for the wider youth justice system”. The Justice Secretary announced the Medway Independent Improvement Board that same day and, nearly six weeks since it submitted its report to the Minister, its findings and recommendations, and the Government’s response, have been published.

Government response to the Improvement Board’s Report here.

Children unable to breathe during restraint

Two reports obtained by Article 39 reveal there were 119 restraints in child prisons which compromised children’s breathing, or led to them being seriously injured, between 2013 and 2015.

It took 11 months for the Ministry of Justice to hand over the 2014/15 report, which was first requested in May 2015. A version of the report was given to us in December 2015, but virtually all of the contents were redacted. We complained to the Information Commissioner and, after further delay, the report was given to us last month. It shows that, between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2015:

  • There were 65 incidents in six prisons (two juvenile young offender institutions and four secure training centres) where a child’s breathing was compromised, or they were seriously injured, during restraint
  • G4S-run Rainsbrook secure training centre had the highest number of incidents – 20 or 31% of the total
  • G4S-run Medway secure training centre had the second highest – 16 incidents (25%)
  • G4S-run Oakhill secure training centre had the third highest of the six prisons – 15 (23%)
  • The other three prisons had a total of 14 incidents (two of these, Hassockfield secure training centre and Hindley young offender institution, stopped detaining children in January and February 2015 respectively).

Of the 65 incidents, 71 warning signs and symptoms were recorded: 19 breathing difficulties; 18 occasions when a child complained  of being unable to breathe; 4 serious physical injuries; 6 incidents when a child vomited whilst being restrained; 8 petechial rash (haemorrhages); 11 incidents when a child lost consciousness or suffered reduced consciousness; and 5 incidents were listed as “other”.

In all of the incidents where a child suffered breathing difficulties and a petechial rash was observed, the head hold was used. The report does not state where the rashes were present: eye and face petechial are linked with asphyxial deaths. NICE clininal guidelines indicate that petechia should be suspected as child abuse if not associated with a medical condition or there is not a suitable explanation; and that such a rash on a child’s face, head or neck could indicate attempted strangulation and suffocation.

In one of the emergencies included in the 2014/15 report, a child was held in a seated hold in Rainsbrook. The child vomited. Notes in the report state the restraint was “prolonged” and “The handcuffs should have been applied much earlier” and there was no single person supervising the restraint (the role was changed between staff “several times”).

In another restraint in Rainsbrook, a child was reported to have “lost or reduced consciousness”. The notes refer to staff being “coached on application of head hold and risks to YP surrounding the use of arm across the throat”.

In another restraint in Rainsbrook, the recommendations include staff being told about “the Laws of use of force and its justification… and to be reminded if a young person verbalises they cannot breathe to ‘check and adjust’ as a minimum response”.

The report shows some children continue to be restrained on the floor, on their front or on their back, in breach of policy.

Large parts of the report summarising each incident, together with recommendations of the Behaviour Management and Restraint Governance Board in the National Offender Management Service, are redacted. In 20 of the 65 incidents, the Board gave no recommendations – which suggests it believes nothing could have been done to prevent the serious harm suffered by children.

The 2014/15 report does not state what the four serious injuries were but observes that one resulted from the “misapplication” of restraint and “a disregard by the staff member to respond to the young persons symptoms”, and another was investigated.

The shortest child to suffer breathing difficulties or a serious injury was 1.5m tall – less than five foot.

Serious incidents continued to take place in a child’s cell or “off camera”, in breach of policy.

The report shows Medway to have the highest rate of breathing warning signs or injuries as a proportion of restraints: 7% of restraints led to breathing difficulties or serious injuries. Next came Rainsbrook at 5%; then Oakhill at 4%; then Hindley at 3%; then Wetherby young offender institution at 1%; and, finally, Hassockfield at 0.8%.

The 2013/14 report, released to Article 39 last year, shows:

  • There were 54 serious injuries and warning signs that year
  • 48% of these serious incidents concerned children’s breathing (13 breathing difficulties and 13 complaints of difficulties breathing); and a further 30% involved a petechial rash. The report notes, “Petechial Rash and breathing difficulties constituted 78% of the [serious incidents]. This points towards a restriction of the mechanics of breathing to varying degrees”
  • Two incidents involved the child “appearing to lose consciousness”; both of these children had asthma. One child vomited after being given his/her inhaler “under restraint”
  • 7% of the incidents involved a child vomiting whilst being restrained: government guidelines state this is a medical emergency
  • Children suffered fractures whilst being restrained on four separate occasions
  • 39% of the 54 serious incidents occurred in Rainsbrook secure training centre, which was at that time run by G4S.

The Ministry of Justice report states, “The incidents that cause most concern are those where there is no camera coverage”.

Guardian news story here.

The Ministry of Justice does not appear to have made the reports available on its website.