As prisons correspondent for the Guardian, I have covered many stories that have angered me. It could hardly be otherwise, writing as I am about a penal system that fails so spectacularly in so many areas.
But I have never been more enraged than in researching and co-writing a piece about sexual abuse in prisons.
The story was about perhaps the most prolific sex offender this country has ever seen. Neville Husband was a prison officer who, in 1969, was moved from Portland borstal, Dorset, to the Medomsley detention centre, county Durham, where he ran the kitchen for 15 years. It is likely that, on every working day of that period, he sexually abused young detainees in his charge. Those were young, vulnerable boys, many of them from the care system, too terrified to complain.
My anger is not directed at Husband, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail for his crimes, and is now dead. It is instead aimed at the system and those in it who, at all levels, protected him and betrayed his victims. They are fellow officers who, at Husband's trial, testified they knew "something was going on". "Husband used to keep one boy behind in the kitchen at night," said one, "we always felt sorry for that boy." Felt sorry? Then why didn't you do something about it and put an end to Husband's reign of terror, an end to the misery his victims suffered? I am also angry at the various governors at Medomsley, who approved Husband's request to stay there when promotion and transfer beckoned. Angry at those who knew of his previous arrest for possession of child pornography ? depicting teenage boys ? while he was at Portland. (Husband was not charged, because he was "thinking about writing a book on homosexuality" and the material seized was for "research".) I'm angry at Durham police officers who ignored the complaints of some of the victims who went to them after being released and who failed to move on him even after an accomplice of his had been arrested for abuse, and told them he had "been given a boy" by Husband.
My anger is also directed at people at the top of the prison service who, when some victims sought compensation, fought the claim all the way to the House of Lords. Politicians like then minister of justice Jack Straw who said, after those victims hoped the system would apologise to them, that "an apology was not part of the settlement". Really, Mr Straw? You could not say sorry to victims who, in some cases, were tied up and raped by an officer of the crown? And let's not forget the current prison service which responded to our request for a comment on Husband's abuse thus: "In the late 1970s, several detainees held at Medomsley detention centre were physically and sexually abused by Neville Husband. At no stage has the Ministry of Justice attempted to defend the actions of Mr Husband. The prison service has come a long way since the 1980s and significant efforts have been made to eliminate, so far as is possible, the mistreatment of prisoners."
"Several" detainees? Any rational examination of the evidence against Husband would conclude he abused hundreds, possibly thousands, of boys during his awful tenure. As for not defending Husband's actions, fighting compensation claims all the way to the House of Lords looks pretty much like defending his actions to me. The prison service did not bother to send an observer to Husband's trial and told the victims' lawyers it had "no plans" to carry out a review, or investigation, after the civil action. The Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute Husband over alleged abuse at Deerbolt young offenders institution because it would "not be in the public interest". Is that "moving on"?
In order to "move on" from a problem, it has to be first acknowledged and then addressed. There still has never been an inquiry into how Husband was allowed to abuse so many people over so many years, and to try to ensure it never happens again. As Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons, told the Guardian: "It would be dangerously complacent to imagine these things could only happen in the past. There is always a danger that in closed institutions ? be they prisons, children's homes or hospitals ? abusive behaviour by some staff becomes the accepted norm. We need to recognise the vulnerability inherent in the situation of every detainee."
We were alerted to this horror story by a powerful no-budget film, Adam Rickwood and the Medolmsley Heroes, produced by Pie and Mash Films. It was never broadcast but is available on YouTube. It is a long and angry account of the anguish caused by Husband, exacerbated by the system that protected him. It does not make comfortable viewing. Those who betrayed the boys in their charge ought to be made to watch it.
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