Our successful action to end pain-inducing restraint in child prisons

LATEST: 17 August 2023
A new Ministry of Justice policy document, 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. Staff will be trained to use ’emergency intervention techniques’, which may involve the deliberate infliction of pain, in incidents where there is a risk to life or the threat of a life-changing injury.

Our work opposing these brutal techniques continues.

Article 39 has always strongly opposed pain-inducing restraint. It is one of the reasons our charity exists. In August 2004, Adam Rickwood, aged just 14 years, took his own life after being unlawfully restrained by four officers in a Serco-run child prison in Durham. He had been inflicted with the so-called ‘nose distraction’ – a severe swipe to the nose intended to cause serious pain. Adam’s death, together with the testimony of other children, has been the driving force behind our legal action and campaigning.

In February 2016, we discovered that escort custody officers were being trained to inflict pain as a form of restraint on children during their journeys to/from secure children’s homes. This was despite such techniques being banned in the secure children’s homes themselves. After corresponding with the government, we realised that legal action would be the only way to protect children.

We raised funds through a CrowdJustice appeal and our legal team began challenging the policy in August 2017, after which the Ministry of Justice undertook an internal review. This concluded that the policy should remain unchanged. We kept up the pressure, and were then told a full review of pain-inducing restraint would take place. Lack of progress led us to apply for permission for judicial review in October 2018. The High Court stayed (paused) our application in January 2019 while a review was carried out by Charlie Taylor (then Chair of the Youth Justice Board, now Chief Inspector of Prisons), and Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights completed an inquiry in child custody.

In June 2020, Charlie Taylor’s review was published alongside the government’s response. This recommended that pain-inducing restraint be taken out of the main restraint syllabus, with pain-inducing techniques strictly restricted to serious, emergency self-defence situations. The government accepted this recommendation – both in respect of children’s journeys to/from custody (our legal challenge) and child prisons.

But the government’s full written response gave no indication as to when children would be protected. In fact, it suggested there could be significant delay, stating:

As this represents a considerable change … sufficient time and resources will need to be allocated to ensure that the impact is fully researched and understood before any changes are implemented. 

Further correspondence from our lawyers followed. The Ministry of Justice was told we were preparing to return to court. Then, on 7 August 2020 – more than four years after we began challenging the policy in respect of children’s journeys to/from secure children’s homes – we heard the excellent news that pain-inducing restraint was no longer authorised in this context (from 27 July 2020). We were also given a time-frame for its removal from the system of restraint in child prisons themselves. The Ministry of Justice failed to meet that time-frame (approximately 6 months), and the new policy prohibiting pain-inducing restraint in child prisons is now scheduled to apply from February 2024.

Adam Rickwood
The first and most important challenge to pain-inducing restraint came from 14 year-old Adam Rickwood. He was inflicted with the so-called ‘nose distraction’ in a Serco-run child prison in August 2004. This technique involved officers making a karate-like chop upwards from the base of a child’s nose. Adam’s nose bled for around an hour.

Adam verbally questioned officers during the ‘restraint’. He then wrote a note for his solicitor recounting that he had asked what gave staff the right to hit a child in the nose, and they called it restraint. Adam wrote a separete letter to his family setting out his funeral wishes. He then hanged himself. In legal proceedings five years after Adam’s death, a High Court judge was to state: “There was no right to hurt such a child in these circumstances”. The use of the ‘nose distraction’ on Adam was unlawful and in breach of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to protection from inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.

Use of the ‘nose distraction’ was suspended more than three years after Adam died, though officers continued to be trained and authorised to use other methods which cause children to suffer psychologically and physically.

Article 39’s Director wrote this piece for openDemocracy on the 15th anniversary of Adam’s death (8 August 2019).

Adam Rickwood photograph


“When I calmed down I asked them why they hit me in the nose and jumped on me. They said it was because I wouldn’t go in my room so I said what gives them the right to hit a 14-year-old child in the nose and they said it was restraint.”
– extract from note left by Adam, August 2004

Our submission to the Charlie Taylor Review on pain-inducing restraint (7 May 2019) can be downloaded here.

Legal team challenging pain-inducing restraint
Article 39 was represented by Mark Scott, Partner at Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, and Dan Squires QC and Tamara Jaber from Matrix Chambers.