In the Media

Force and fear are still being used to control incarcerated children | Carolyne Willow

PUBLISHED February 23, 2012

Last month the high court learned of widespread restraint that had been going unchecked, but the law remains unchanged

The 1908 children's charter abolished the death penalty for children under the age of 16. Since then the state's worst punishment has been imprisonment, and the 1990s saw the UK become one of the biggest incarcerators of children in the western world.

Few of the deprivations of adult imprisonment are spared for children. They are often held miles away from their families, transported in sweatboxes, strip-searched, put in solitary confinement, made to endure hunger and long periods of boredom, and trapped in a brutal environment where bullying and toughness reign. Panic, anger and fear ? disturbing emotions for the person feeling them as well as those around ? are regularly met with physical force. Restraint is to prison what bedpans are to hospital: part of its routine.

And so the latest published inspection report of Ashfield, a young offender institution run by Serco, reveals that there have been nearly 150 physical restraints a month across the previous year ? a ninefold increase since HM prisons inspectors last checked the books.

The inspectorate report also gives harrowing insight into the lives of the disabled children held there last autumn. Only 19% of these children said staff asked them if they needed any help or support when first admitted, 66% felt unsafe and 63% had been victimised by another child. Just 13% of these disabled children understood the targets in their "training plan".

Furthermore, several months after the Youth Justice Board (YJB) announced strip-searching would be "risk-led", inspectors found children were being made to routinely strip off their clothes. In September 2011, in this single institution there were 572 strip searches, 84% inflicted when a child first entered the institution. Not one unauthorised item was found during these "reception" searches.

Even in these austere times, the YJB plans to buy more than 2,300 places for children each year. The Howard League for Penal Reform reports that more than 100 places in secure children's homes have been decommissioned by the YJB over the past decade. Imagine a child health strategy that closed down paediatric wards while investing millions in trying to make the staff and surroundings of adult wards child-friendly.

Last month, Mr Justice Foskett in the high court set out in meticulous detail the widespread unlawful restraint that went unchecked for at least a decade in four secure training centres run by Serco and G4S. And since that judgment, two more children have died (in circumstances that have yet to be established) in state-run young offender institution, bringing the total number of such child deaths to 33 since 1990.

Yet there has not been a single public inquiry; and not one change in the law to strengthen child protection in YOIs and STCs. Staff in secure children's homes are now under a legal duty to systematically record their attempts at averting physical restraint. They must log the child's version of events and list any injuries.

In penal custody, the YJB and Ministry of Justice have still not fully implemented a coroner's recommendation made in 2007 that children be encouraged to give their own account of restraint. Officials responded that many children in custody are unable to read or write, so having forms where they can give their perspective may not be the best way forward.

As well as Baby Peter and Victoria Climbi?, the public should know the names and histories of Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood, the two boys who died eight years ago in appalling circumstances following restraint in STCs. All these years later, there are still no restraint techniques approved for use across all children's settings, and seemingly no plans to reject methods that deliberately aim to inflict severe pain and humiliation.

The Prison Reform Trust examined the histories of 200 children in custody and found 48% had been excluded from school, 39% had been subject to abuse or neglect, 28% had witnessed domestic violence, 27% had been in local authority care, 20% had self-harmed, 13% had suffered the death of a parent or sibling and 11% had attempted suicide.

These statistics show the scale of suffering. What they don't reveal is what has been missing from so many of these children's lives: unconditional love, affection, attention, unstinting support and adults showing them that violence and aggression is not the answer to stress and conflict. Banging up children, stripping them naked and using force and fear to gain compliance continues the damage. It is cruel and senseless and must stop right now.

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