Earlier this year the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling unveiled plans for an £85 million secure young offender unit in Leicestershire which will open in 2017. The unit will hold 320 boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 17 and its intention is to put “education at the heart of custody” and reduce re-offending. There has been mass condemnation of the “secure college” from various member organizations of the Standing Committee of Youth Justice including the Howard League for Penal Reform who described the government’s plan as “flawed, dangerous and a recipe for child abuse.”
To add further controversy to the plans, Chris Grayling has called for the re-introduction of restraint techniques to be used on the young people held in the unit. The details enclosed in Part 2 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, permit custody officers to use force on children in custody in order to maintain good order and discipline (GOAD). Use of force is currently permitted in youth custody as a last resort for preventing harm to other young people.
However, in 2008 a judgement by the Court of Appeal ruled that use of force must only be used where absolutely necessary. Applying use of force on children as a means of disciplining them does not comply with the criteria of ‘absolutely necessary’ and is therefore incompatible with Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The use of force on children in custody is both ineffective in reducing re-offending rates and dangerous. Lord Carlile QC undertook an independent review of the use of force on children in custody and found that violence often became the norm by custody officers.
The tragic death of Gareth Myatt in 2004 was a valuable and costly lesson for the Youth Justice Board and demonstrates the unpredictable consequences of restraint techniques.
On April 19th 2004, Gareth, aged 14 and weighing under seven stone, was put in to the seated double embrace position by three adults after refusing to clean a toaster in the communal dining area. Gareth protested that he could not breathe but his pleas were ignored until he finally choked on his own vomit.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Open Society Foundation
From 1990 to 2011, 31 children died in custody. Whilst 29 of those deaths were self-inflicted, the figure highlights the already desperate situation of children who end up in custodial settings.
These young people are often the most vulnerable, neglected and socially isolated in society. Many have grown up experiencing severe physical and sexual abuse. Their unfair and troubled childhood is often the main factor leading them to prison. To add further violence for the purposes of GOAD in YOIs will only further reinforce the lesson that many of these children already know; that life is a cruel and violent place. The lessons they have never learned are how to feel safe, loved and respected.
If our aim as a society is to rehabilitate young people and reduce crime we must take an evidence-led approach. Virginie Despentes astutely said: “What does prison create? It is no solution, just the face of inhumanity, the dirty mirror reflecting how poorly we live together, how we only know how to respond to violence by unleashing more violence.”
Chris Grayling’s insistence on re-introducing restraint techniques to maintain order is a clear backwards step in prison reform.