Children behind bars: Is it time to close our child prisons?

Haunted by the restraint-related deaths of Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood in prisons run by G4S and Serco, Carolyne Willow spent 18 months collecting information about young offender institutions and secure training centres.

Her book ‘Children behind bars: why the abuse of child imprisonment must end’, which details the findings of her research, publishes today. In a guest post for us, Carolyne shares the shock she felt at the bleak and murky world of child prisoner abuse uncovered by her research.

Carolyne Willow

Carolyne Willow

Although I had been close to the issues of child prisoner treatment for getting onto 20 years, I discovered there was still much for me to learn. The transfer of methods, and perpetrators, between different institutional settings was one revelation.

I hadn’t realised, for example, that the ringleader of the sadistic abuse of people with learning disabilities at Winterbourne View had honed his techniques whilst working in a young offender institution.

Nor did I know that Frank Beck, the country’s most notorious children’s homes manager, used the ‘rib distraction’ (sharply driving fingers or knuckles into the child’s ribs) technique. Several years after Beck was sentenced to five life sentences plus 24 years for his systematic abuse of children in care, this was one of three brutal restraint techniques approved for use in secure training centres.


I was horrified by the scale of alleged abuse in Medomsley detention centre in Durham, now reported by 950 former inmates. The account of boys lying at the foot of the stairs so others could jump on their legs and break them, as the only means of leaving the institution and escaping further abuse, is heartbreaking.

Sexual abuse in Downview women’s prison, which also held girls, was also news to me. Civil servants refused to release the report from the prison service’s internal investigation, though they disclosed that action was taken against four prison officers between 2009 and 2013.

Other information I elicited points to children being sexually abused in that prison. Successive parliamentary questions about prison officer sexual abuse have been rebutted on cost grounds. I can only imagine how Louise Casey would have reacted had Rotherham councillors dared use this ‘disproportionate cost’ excuse for lack of data during her recent inspection of the authority’s action on child sexual exploitation.

After months of pursuing information on child prisoner abuse, I was told 62 prison officers working with children in nine state prisons were disciplined for abuse between 2009 and 2013 – six of these for an ‘inappropriate relationship with a prisoner/ex-prisoner’.

“…in the words of the sentencing judge, [William John Payne] was able to sexually assault a child prisoner ‘at every opportunity’”

My information requests to councils and police forces for the first time give a picture of children’s allegations, and the inadequate response of child protection agencies. Even when prison officers have been convicted, as with William John Payne – who, in the words of the sentencing judge, was able to sexually assault a child prisoner ‘at every opportunity’ – child protection follow-up seems non-existent.

The local authority in which that prison is located couldn’t give me rudimentary data on abuse allegations made by children. It did, however, say no serious case reviews were held during the relevant period. Serious case reviews are initiated when a child dies or has been seriously harmed and there are concerns about safeguarding. Payne had been a prison officer for 30 years.

Fear, hunger, deprivation of fresh air and exercise, physical abuse and desperate loneliness are ubiquitous in child prisons. Thirty-three boys have died since 1990. A single government department was responsible for the 19 prisons in which 31 of the children died, and the Youth Justice Board managed contracts with the multinationals running the two secure training centres in which Gareth and Adam died.

routine strip-searching

Prison policy demanded the routine strip-searching of child inmates until last year, with thousands of children forced to suffer the degradation of adults in uniforms inspecting their bodies. Those who refused would be held down and their clothes yanked off, sometimes with ‘safety scissors’.

Stripping children naked was part of the authorised procedure for transferring them to the ‘block’ (segregation). This is one of many penal practices I hope Justice Lowell Goddard will scrupulously investigate during her inquiry into sexual abuse and exploitation from the 1970s onwards, which has prisons and ‘secure’ institutions listed within its remit.

Long before the judge reports, however, our remaining child prisons must close, whatever the financial cost. It’s time for the hamster-wheel of reforms and rebrands to stop. Chris Grayling’s self-indulgent plans for new penal institutions – the ‘secure college’ – should be graciously donated to a museum of Victorian childhood.

Children suffer in prison precisely because they are in prison; that is the truth. New centres of excellence modelled on the best of secure children’s homes, and international evidence, is the only way forward. Clinging onto child prisons in the face of the devastating evidence is far more than covering up abuse. It is perpetuating it.

Related links

Guardian article 11 February 2015 – Carolyne Willow: ‘We closed workhouses, let’s get rid of child prisons’

Children behind bars [FC]Children behind bars: why the abuse of child imprisonment must end publishes today and copies can be purchased at a 20% discount from the Policy Press website – here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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