A prison officer charged with misconduct in public office was found not guilty last week. The jury took just 20 minutes to acquit him.
The case raises questions about G4S child prison in Medway, Kent, possibly continuing to flout the law on the use of physical restraint with vulnerable children.
Prison officer Alexander Williams was alleged to have thrown a 15-year-old boy against a cell wall before pushing him onto his bed. The boy said the officer, a former rugby player and personal trainer, then pressed his forearms into his throat. The incident was alleged to have happened in September 2013, and was investigated by police once they heard BBC Panorama was unearthing serious child abuse in the prison.
In January 2016, a BBC Panorama programme showed children seemingly being subject to serious physical and emotional abuse. Months later the prison was transferred from G4S control to the prison service.
The teenager said other staff members were shouting because Mr Williams “went too deep”.
“Normally they give you a little punch in the face,” he said. “If other staff weren’t there he would have killed me. I promise you now I would not be here.”
Apparently the boy “was told to go to his room” and a female officer activated ‘first response’ – where other officers rush to assist with an incident. Children in the past have reported that prison officers habitually used first response in secure training centres and that it invariably led to the use of physical restraint, irrespective of whether a child was posing any danger or not.
Kentonline further reports:
Other staff members felt Williams had overreacted, rather than use approved techniques. Later, Mr Crowhurst [a colleague] challenged Williams about it, but he pushed his hand away and called him a “p***y and a ****”. Mrs Crowhurst [another colleague] reminded him Elliott was only a child and he was aggressive to her also.
A nurse later found the teenager to be angry. He punched the window in his room. He was upset and distressed.
After the deaths of two children in secure training centres run by G4S and Serco respectively, it was discovered that officers employed by the companies had been unlawfully restraining children for many years.
The law states officers can restrain children only when there is no other way of preventing a child: escaping; injuring himself or others; damaging property; or inciting another child to escape, injure or damage property.
The Youth Justice Board’s response at the time was to press for a change in the law that would permit officers to use force on children to make them obey orders. This was achieved by a change to statutory rules in 2007. However, the Court of Appeal quashed those rules in 2008, finding they risked breaching children’s right to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment.
Kentonline’s report indicates the boy in this incident may have been restrained outside the law:
“All I remember is I am saying: ‘Why am I going to my room?’ I don’t know if I am grabbed but I am slung into the wall.
“I haven’t grabbed anyone’s shirt or tie. I am being thrown into the wall and then I am being pinned down. That has happened for no reason, because this has happened to me before.
“I have been assaulted in this place more than once. I could name four occasions. It isn’t how misbehaved you are, you always get restrained.
No complaint was made by the boy because he didn’t believe it would amount to anything. Alexander Williams stopped working at the children’s prison the year after the incident, and went to an adult prison in Rugby. He now teaches control and restraint to prison officers.
In January 2012, a year before this incident, the High Court found that G4S and Serco secure training centres had been unlawfully restraining children probably from their inception (1998 onwards) to at least July 2008. Foskett J noted in his judgment:
[It is] a legitimate comment that until the deaths of Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood, and the investigations and inquiries that resulted from those deaths, none of the agencies in place to monitor what took place within an STC had identified and/or acted to stop the unlawful nature of what was happening.
Article 39’s Director Carolyne Willow said:
“The description of the incident echoes hundreds of others I have read and heard over the years, where at the centre you have a panicked and frightened child asking why they are being overpowered and shouting out for help. If this child was restrained simply to get him into his cell, this could point to G4S continuing to run an unlawful restraint regime years after the Court of Appeal ruling. That would be devastating.”