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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Over 4,000 children injured when restrained in custody

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New Howard League report reveals that the use of restraint and solitary confinement for children in custody have worsened over the last decade.

The Carlile Inquiry 10 years on

The rate at which children in custody are restrained has more than doubled in the last five years.

That’s one of the key findings of a disturbing new (20 June 2016) report from the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The Carlile Inquiry 10 years on” explores the use of restraint, solitary confinement and strip-searching on children in custody. It looks at what progress has been made since the Howard League published the findings of an independent inquiry, chaired by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, into the use of restraint, solitary confinement and strip-searching in penal institutions for children.

That inquiry followed the deaths of two boys in secure training centres. Gareth Myatt, 15, died while being restrained by officers in G4S-run Rainsbrook secure training centre, Northamptonshire. Adam Rickwood, 14, was found hanging in his cell after being unlawfully restrained in Serco-run Hassockfield secure training centre, County Durham. An inquest concluded that the restraint had contributed to Adam’s decision to take his own life.

Lord Carlile’s team recommended that restraint should never be used as a punishment or to secure compliance. The courts have since held that using physical force on a child to get them to do as they are told is unlawful. It has been supposedly banned in secure training centres and it is not used in secure children’s homes.

Regrettably, this new report shows that this unlawful practice is widespread in young offender institutions, however, and accounts for 22 to 34 per cent of all times force is used on children.

The report examines the key issues of restraint, solitary confinement and strip-searching.

Restraint

The Howard Leagure reports that a total of 4,350 injuries have been sustained by children while being subject to restraint in the last five years (Hansard, 2016). Until February 2016 the Youth Justice Board did not disclose the full extent of injuries suffered by children as a result of the use of force.

Under the new restraint system children should be offered support from an advocate and healthcare following force being used on them. Too often, however, this is not happening. The Howard League quotes an example from the Prison Inspectorate where:

a child had attempted to hang himself with a ligature following a restraint. He had not been offered appropriate support, despite staff awareness that he had a tendency to self-harm following restraint. Had the child not been discovered when another boy looked through the observation panel, this could have led to another tragic incident.

Healthcare staff do not medically assess all children after restraint. Instead they will ‘check on’ children through the hatch in their door.

Carlile 10

Solitary confinement

In 2006 the Carlile Inquiry reported on the largely hidden world of prison segregation. It found that most segregation units, which were known by a range of euphemisms, were little more than bare, dark and dank cells which would have a very negative impact on children’s mental health and, indeed, risk of suicide.

The Howard League reports that little has changed in the intervening years. There is still no central data on the number of children placed in segregation units, the length of confinement or reasons for confinement. The latest survey of children in prison found that over a quarter of boys had been held in segregation units at some point. Information provided to Parliament showed that children spent 7,970 days in prison segregation units in 2013/14.

Inspectors have been critical about the state and use of segregation units at a number of Young Offender Institutions.

In recent years, due to a combination of staff shortages and an increase in violence, children’s prisons have increasingly imposed restricted
regimes, either across entire institutions or to ‘manage’ individual children. This has given rise to a relatively new and widespread practice
of holding children in conditions of solitary confinement on main prison wings, locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. This includes children isolating themselves because they are too frightened to be on main prison wings.

Strip searches

This is the one section of the report which reports some positive progress:

  • Routine strip-searching in secure children’s homes and secure training centres, including on reception, was banned and replaced by an entirely risk-based approach
  • Following a review by the Youth Justice Board conducted against the background in 2007 of the Gender Equality Duty and the Corston Report, routine strip-searching of 17-year-old girls in prison service units was replaced by a risk-based approach. These units are now closed
    In 2012 the prison rules were amended to introduce a risk-based approach in all aspects of strip-searching of boys in young offender
    institutions, except for on initial reception
  • Following successful and continued lobbying by the Howard League, the Ministry of Justice agreed to introduce pilots using a risk-based approach on reception. They were successful and in 2014 the prison rules were changed so that children are not automatically stripsearched on arrival.

Stripsearches still take place — a Howard League Freedom of Information request revealed 367 such searches — but important progress has been made.

Conclusion

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this report is that the problems of restraint and segregation have escalated during a period where the youth custody population has reduced significantly.

It appears that the way in which children are treated in many institutions, Medway Secure Training Centre being the obvious most recent example, do not bear the close and continuous scrutiny which organisations like the Howard League provide.

We must wait and see whether Charlie Taylor’s review of the youth justice system (due to be published any day now) tackles this issue head-on.

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