Institutionalised child abuse

Kenneth 'Revolution' Clarke has justified the official document authorising the brutal 'control' methods meted out to young offenders, notes Eddie Ford

We have, of course, been promised a “rehabilitation revolution” by Kenneth Clarke, secretary of state for justice. Part of this “revolution” includes “radical” plans to increase private sector involvement in the penal system, which, according to Clarke, will see companies receiving “payment by results” - with success or not being defined, apparently, by whether former inmates reconvict within the first few years of leaving prison.

Needless to say, various privately run prisons and ‘correction centres’ have long been big business in the United States. Indeed, they underpin virtually the whole economy of many rural areas, whether it be from business supplying the prisons or the prisoners acting as free labour - modern-day slaves. Not insignificantly, the US has the largest prison population and reoffending rate in the world.

Well, perhaps we have just caught a glimpse of what this private sector “revolution” might actually look like. After a five-year struggle led by the Children’s Rights Alliance (CRA), a manual published five years ago by the prison service has finally seen the light of day under the Freedom of Information Act. Upon its original publication in 2005, the 119-page Physical control in care - purportedly drawn up to deal with “unruly children” in custody - was immediately classified as a “restricted” government document and up until a few weeks ago the government was fighting tooth and nail against allowing its publication, even though the information commissioner had ruled that the public interest in this matter was so “grave” that the manual should be quickly released. In the end though, the ministry of justice - or more exactly, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) - backed down and last week the details appeared in The Observer.

What emerges is an absolutely horrific picture of the life endured by young offenders incarcerated in secure training centres (STCs) - “purpose-built” facilities for young offenders between the ages of 12 and 17 run by private firms under government contracts. In other words, what you and me call prisons - even if that word is never mentioned in the official literature. When first proposed by Michael ‘prison works’ Howard in 1994, the entire idea was heavily criticised by none other than Tony Blair for being a “sham” - on the grounds that the Tories were happy to “weaken the provisions in local communities” on the one hand while, on the other,  claiming that building the new STCs will somehow help prevent juvenile crime. The New Labour tune changed upon getting elected in 1997, when the STCs quickly became part of the new government’s determination to please the tabloids and get “tough on crime” - though most definitely not on the “causes of crime”.

The first STC was eventually built in 1998. In the words of the YJB, they are for “vulnerable young people” who are sentenced to custody or remanded to secure accommodation: that is, young people deemed too vulnerable or damaged to be put into ‘mainstream’ young offender institutions. We are further told that these STCs, of which there are four so far, provide a “secure environment”, whereby young offenders can be “educated and rehabilitated” and that the “regimes” are “constructive and education-focused” - with the “trainees” undergoing, or being subjected to, intensive education “25 hours a week, 52 weeks of the year”.[1]

In reality, as we now know, many of these already “vulnerable young people” inside the STCs became the victims of systematic and quite deliberate physical abuse - making Physical control in care read more like a sadist’s charter than a dispassionate guide to “restraint” and “self-defence”, with the STCs representing a hellish form of state-sanctioned institutionalised child abuse.

The measures and techniques recommended by the manual, and actually deployed to one degree or another within the STCs, include the “use of an inverted knuckle into the trainee’s sternum”, which you then “drive inward and upward” - whilst you “continue to carry alternate elbow strikes to the young person’s ribs until a release is achieved”. Or, if you are so inclined, you can “drive straight fingers into the young person’s face” and then “quickly drive the straightened fingers of the same hand downwards into the young person’s groin area”. The document also describes how you need to force children to “adopt a kneeling position” if you want to clamp steel handcuffs on them, not to mention holding a “child’s forehead to the floor with another hand on the back of the neck” - which is the process by which a staff member “takes control of the head”. If required, the guide additionally outlines the effectiveness of “raking shoes” down the shins or the “nose distraction” technique - which is, delivering sharp blows to the nose. Charmingly, STC staff members were given nicknames like “mauler”, “crusher” and “clubber”, with the young people who had been restrained the most times referred to as the “winners”.

Yes, points out Physical control in care, such techniques risk giving children and young offenders a “fracture to the skull” - perhaps even resulting in “temporary or permanent blindness caused by rupture to eyeball or detached retina” or inducing “asphyxia”. In one passage explaining how to administer a “head-hold” on children, we are told that “if breathing is compromised the situation ceases to be a restraint” and instead “becomes a medical emergency”. However, so we are dutifully informed by the ministry of justice, “staff need to be able to intervene effectively” in order to guarantee compliance with “reasonable requests or direct orders”. Kenneth Clarke himself responded by saying that the “very careful guidance” supplied by documents like Physical control in care was kept under constant review, but that “unarmed staff” needed to be able to “control” youngsters in STCs and elsewhere.

Predictably, such brutal techniques and practices have resulted in fatalities. Hence Gareth Myatt, aged 15, died in 2004 while being held down by three staff at Rainsbrook STC in Warwickshire - choking to death on his own vomit. In the same year, 14-year-old Adam Rickwood hanged himself at the Hassockfield STC in County Durham - despite the fact that he had been known to suffer from suicidal tendencies before entering the institution. Last year a judge ruled that the staff who had ‘restrained’ Rickwood shortly before his death had used “unlawful force”.

Furthermore, we discover that in the 12 months up to March 2009, such “restraint” was used 1,776 times in the STCs - leading Al Aynsley-Green, the former children’s commissioner for England and emeritus professor of child health at University College London, to comment that they are “just part of a brutal system” when it comes to the treatment of young offenders. Similarly, Carolyne Willow, the CRA’s national co-ordinator, lambasted government ministers for believing that children as young as 12 could “get so out of control so often, that staff should be taught how to ram their knuckles into their rib cages” - wondering whether we would permit paediatricians, teachers, children’s home staff, etc to be “trained in how to deliberately hurt and humiliate children”. While in the view of Deborah Coles, co-director of the charity, Inquest - which campaigns on the issue of contentious deaths in custody - the STC deaths emanated from a “culture of obfuscation, secrecy and complacency”, while “dangerous, unlawful and ultimately lethal practices continued unchecked”. All in all, 29 children have died in custody during the last 17 years.

Grotesquely, as we have seen, private companies are making money from the misery, oppression and violence that are routinely found in penal institutions like the STCs. According to the prison officers’ union, the POA, privately run prisons and detention centres now comprise 10% of the total prison estate, which is a “higher percentage than any other country”.[2] Two of the most prominent profiteers in this trade being Serco and G4S, formerly Group 4 Securicor, whose corporate tag-line boasts that their policies are “derived from the principles of childcare best practice” and “reflect the ‘every child matters’ agenda”. As for Serco, listed on the FTSE 100 Index, it has its greedy fingers in just about every corporate pie going and has been described by The Guardian as “probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of” - its global empire incorporating various sectors, including transport, defence, aviation, health, education, leisure, etc. Serco’s chief executive, Christopher Rajendran Hyman, is a Pentecostal Christian from South Africa: a self-professed “evangelical” whose whole life is “driven by god”.[3]

Of course, the ‘god-driven’ Serco also runs Hassockfield STC - where Adam Rickwood was killed - and the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre, which has an inglorious history of brutality. Throughout its operational period there have been a number of hunger strikes, protests and riots by the detainees - unprepared to meekly acquiesce to the vindictive and humiliating treatment visited upon them by the staff and administration. In September 2005 Manuel Bravo from Angola was driven to the point of madness by the callous Yarl’s Wood regime and killed himself while being held in detention with his 13-year-old son. And in April 2009, Al Aynsley-Green published a report which stated that children held in Yarl’s Wood were being denied urgent medical treatment, handled violently and “left at risk” of serious harm - chronicling how children were transported in caged vans, “stained with urine and vomit”, and watched by opposite sex staff as they dress and undress.[4]

The most recent outbreak of resistance was in February of this year, which saw over 70 women start a hunger strike in protest at being separated from their children and against the appalling conditions, the grossly inadequate health and legal provisions and the extraordinarily long periods of detainment - up to 15 months or more. In response, the guards locked the women in an airless corridor so as to isolate them from the other inmates.[5]

Here we are confronted with the grim reality that is the marketisation and privatisation of ‘justice’ - so much for Ken Clarke’s heralded “rehabilitation revolution”. PFI involvement in the prison system has not only been used as a weapon against workers and their unions, but has led, and under Clarke will continue to lead, to even further slippage in the treatment of prisoners and young offenders. Prisons should not be for profit or the sadistic entertainment of the jailers. We call for an end to the barbarism of physical restraint and totally support the demand made by Green MP Caroline Lucas that there should be an “explicit ban” on the use of all forms of corporal and physical punishment in STCs, secure children’s homes, young offender institutions, etc.

Communists also call for the immediate closing down of inhuman institutions like the Yarl’s Wood centre, a chilling monument to capitalist oppression. Those who have presided over such institutions, all the while spouting the ‘British values’ of ‘freedom’ and ‘tolerance’, have a lot to answer for. We must not let them forget.


  1. www.yjb.gov.uk/en-gb/yjs/Custody/Securetrainingcentres
  2. www.poauk.org.uk/index.php?prisons-are-not-for-profit
  3. The Guardian February 24 2006.
  4. The Independent April 26 2009.
  5. See visionon.tv/yarlswood