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Brutality against young people in the criminal injustice system

It’s taken five years and a determined struggle by parents and children’s rights campaigners to get the misnamed Ministry of Justice to release a secret manual used by the prison service to control young people.

This is despite the recommendation of a parliamentary joint committee on breaches of human rights affecting children held in custody as far back as 2008 that it should be made publicly available.

Under the heading of Physical Control in Care (PCC), guidance for staff at Secure Training Centres (STC), the manual details shocking ways of inflicting pain. Staff are allowed to:

Facing a wall of resistance, the parents of two boys who died in custody after being held down by staff in centres in Warwickshire and Durham have had to wait since 2004 for the truth to come out. The Ministry of Justice only backed down last week after threatening to go to a tribunal to prevent disclosure. This was despite a Court of Appeal finding that painful “nose distraction” techniques were widely used in one centre and possibly others.

The PCC methods detailed were intended for use on children as young as 12 years old and up to 17 years of age in the privately-run “training” centres. The parliamentary committee was shocked by headings in the manual that even its members were not allowed to read in full at that time.

They reported:

We were alarmed by the headings of some of the redacted sections, namely 'hair grab', 'strangle against the wall', 'strangle on the ground', 'kicks standing' and 'kicks on the floor'. It was not possible to ascertain the content of these sections.

The committee found that the “degree of physical restraint” of children in detention centres contravened the UN Convention. But the more details that leaked out, the more the officials running the Youth Justice Board sought ways of withholding them from the public.

In addition, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England warned about a potential conflict of interest between the private companies managing the STCs “given that the private firms managing STCs must meet targets for children's participation in education in order to secure financial rewards”. Interviews with children during the inquiry found that restraint was being used to ensure children attended education sessions.

It costs £167,750 per year to incarcerate a child in a STC – more than a place at Eton. Around £415 million is spent on the whole “secure estate” for children each year. We can only guess how much of this amount goes to companies like Rebound, who have contracts to run STCs.

The cruel methods used against children are part of a punitive culture which accelerated under New Labour, under whom the under-age prison population soared. The Prison Reform Trust reported in 2008 that up to 94,000 children entered the youth justice system in England and Wales for the first time.

The number of children in prison more than doubled in a decade and Britain locks up far more children at a far younger age than any other country in Western Europe.

A mountain of evidence exists which shows that the punitive approach to young people and crime, despite the vast sums devoted to it, has utterly failed. This latest evidence of brutality against young people should be a powerful impetus to pursuing a strategy of restructuring the state and its oppressive system of criminal injustice.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
19 July 2010

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