Never-ending institutional abuse of imprisoned children

On 31 January 2013 there were 1,374 children aged 12-17 imprisoned in young offender institutions (YOIs), secure training centres (STCs) and secure children’s homes (SCHs) in England and Wales. Each youth custody place costs between £69,600 and £193,600 a year. Although youth imprisonment has fallen during the past year – mainly due to a reduction in the use of detention and training orders by the courts – England and Wales still have one of the highest rates of child imprisonment in western Europe and the treatment of children behind bars continues to be degrading and abusive. In February the government announced plans for new privately-run ‘secure colleges’ for young prisoners. Nicki Jameson reports.



On 3 March 2013 The Guardian published details of a response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request which confirmed that promises to end the routine strip-searching of imprisoned children are being flouted.* The FOIA request was made by Carolyne Willow, former national co-ordinator of the Children’s Rights Alliance England, who described the ‘practice of children being forced to expose their naked bodies to adults in authority’ as ‘institutionalised child abuse’.

Following the death in 2004 of 14-year-old Gareth Myatt, who was forcibly restrained in Rainsbrook STC, Lord Carlile QC conducted an inquiry into restraint, strip-searching and segregation in the then Labour government’s child custody regime. The inquiry report was published in 2006. One 16-year-old girl told how she had been strip-searched and ordered to hand her sanitary towel to staff. Another girl recalled: ‘When I had my first full search it was horrible as I have been sexually abused and I didn’t feel comfortable showing my body as this brought back bad memories.’

In 2011 the Youth Justice Board announced routine strip-searching of incarcerated children would stop; however, in the 21 months up to December 2012, 43,960 strip searches were carried out. The youngest person strip-searched was 12 years old. Nearly half (48%) of children strip-searched were black or minority ethnic. Physical force was used on 50 occasions. Tobacco was the most common illicit item found, with no recorded discoveries of drugs or knives.

Ashfield YOI – punitive and racist

On 7 March 2013 the High Court ruled that Ashfield YOI, near Bristol, which is privately run by Serco and holds up to 400 boys aged 15-18, had violated the right to a fair trial of seven 17-year-old prisoners. Ashfield is due to close as a YOI this year and reopen as a Category C prison for adult men.

The seven boys concerned were among a group of young prisoners who took part in a protest in February 2012. Two were placed in the segregation unit but the other five were subjected to an informal local ‘shadow segregation’ scheme. The judge ruled that this regime, which was referred to by Serco as ‘restriction on the wing’ and involved the boys being confined to their cells for 231/2 hours a day and banned from using the gym, was unlawful, as it was simply segregation by another name without any procedural safeguards.

This decision followed another ruling in May 2012, quashing the additional days’ imprisonment imposed on the boys for participating in the protest. The repeated use of such punishments by ‘independent adjudicators’ – usually local magistrates – can increase prison sentences by hundreds of days. Between January 2010 and April 2012, 1,892 days’ additional punishment were handed out at Ashfield; out of a total of 138 boys receiving additional days, 76 were black (55%), 26 mixed race (18%) and 32 white (23.2%) although only 29.6% of the population of Ashfield were black and 11.4% mixed race, while 50.7% were white.

Protests and punishment

Despite the risk of additional punishment, protests in YOIs are not infrequent. In February five young men were sentenced to up to two years’ imprisonment each for participating in a revolt at Warren Hill YOI in Suffolk in November 2010 when around 50 prisoners refused to return to their cells in protest at restrictions on access to the telephone and other facilities.

The future

The imprisonment of children and their treatment within prison is a national scandal. A section of parliament is conscious of this as, no matter how many tabloid headlines scream of the need to punish ‘young yobs’ and ‘feral youth’, a significant proportion of society continues to think that the criminal justice system should differentiate between adults and children and that young people should be nurtured rather than punished. On 14 March 2013 the House of Commons Justice Committee published its seventh report on Youth Justice. The report welcomed the decrease in use of youth custody, recommended further reductions, especially in relation to non-serious offences, and highlighted the extreme physical dangers of imprisonment:

‘It is unacceptable that vulnerable young people continue to die in the custody of the state…it is imperative to draw together and act upon the learning from these deaths…to ensure that such deaths do not happen again…

‘It is matter of serious concern to us that, despite the fact that the use of force in restraining young offenders has now been definitively linked to the death of at least one young person in custody, the use of restraint rose considerably across the secure estate last year…’

Little positive is likely to come from the Select Committee’s report, which is currently on the desk of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, who has already set out the government’s plans for ‘secure colleges’, a custodial version of ‘free schools’, whereby private companies, religious groups or charities can set up institutions which will receive state funding for the ‘education’ of young prisoners. These colleges will undoubtedly replicate the neglect and brutality prevalent in the existing YOIs and STCs, with even less accountability.

* 43,000 strip-searches carried out on children as young as 12 – Eric Allison

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 232 April/May 2013