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Strip-searching of children

I wrote fairly recently about the excessive use of physical techniques to subdue children in young offender prisons (though the name for those has been changed in some sort of ‘rebranding exercise’)

http://suesspiciousminds.com/2013/02/11/pindown-revisited/

So this piece in the Guardian struck a chord with me. It is a sensational piece in terms of opening your eyes to something which is genuinely shocking, but not written in a sensationalist style.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/mar/03/43000-strip-searches-children

In effect, children who are detained in young offender institutions, can be strip-searched, the official purpose being to look for contraband such as drugs or weapons.

Two years ago, the Youth Justice Board said that this practice would stop, saying that children it had consulted described the practice as undignified, leading “to feelings of anger, humiliation and anxiety”.

The piece then tracks that through careful and dogged Freedom of Information requests made by the Children’s Rights Alliance, we now know that in the last two years nearly 44 thousand strip searches of children were carried out  (I’ll say that again, 44 thousand )

 Of those only 275 searches found anything, mostly tobacco. No drugs or knives were found.

There are just under 1700 children in such institutions, to put that number of 44,000 into context.   It is roughly one strip search per month per head of population. [Obviously in reality, not every child was strip searched once a month, there were probably a small number of children who were searched very very often who pushed those numbers up]

 

A good piece of work by Children’s Rights Alliance, and I thought a damn fine piece of journalism by the Guardian. This is something that makes me feel uncomfortable, and I hope that their work does something to bring it to an end.

 

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
–Dostoyevsky

 

 

Pindown revisited?

 

The Court of Appeal decision in  The Childrens Rights Alliance v Secretary of State for Justice 2013

 

 

This was an appeal against refusal for judicial review of the Secretary of State’s refusal to provide the Childrens Rights Alliance (or the children concerned) with details of which children were the subjects of illegal restraint methods whilst held in Secure Training Centres in the UK.  That disclosure would obviously have been a prelude to advice about, consideration of, and possibly issue of civil claims on behalf of those children.

 

 

The case can be found here:-

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/34.html

 

 

The Childrens Rights Alliance lost the appeal, and thus won’t get access to the information that is required. That may have been the right decision on a strict formulation of the law on judicial review, but on reading the case I felt that it is a state of affairs that deserved a bit more attention, and perhaps some of my readers might be in a position to do something.

 

 

At the Secure Training Centres, which “accommodate persons who either have been sentenced to custody or have been remanded in custody by a court. Their population contains males aged between 12 and 14; females aged between 12 and 16; and males aged between 15 and 17 and females aged 17 who are classified as vulnerable.”

 

Until about July 2008, there was fairly widespread practice at the four Secure Training Centres, which held about 250 young people, of using restraint techniques that staff genuinely (but mistakenly) believed to be lawful

 

  1. it is first convenient to describe the nature of the techniques with which we are concerned. They took two forms. First there is restraint, or physical restraint, properly so called. This includes a number of holds (such as the Double Embrace, the Figure of Four Armlock, the Wrap Around Arm Hold, the Double Wrap Around Arm Hold, and the Double Embrace Lift) designed to enable up to three members of staff to obtain physical control over an inmate; they were not intended to inflict pain. On 19 April 2004 a 15-year old trainee at Rainsbrook STC, Gareth Myatt, was asphyxiated while being restrained in one of these approved holds. Secondly, there are “distraction techniques”. The PCC Training Manual for 2005 (PCC stands for “physical control in care”) describes three such techniques: nose, thumb and rib distraction. These involve the measured application of pressure on those parts of the body in order to cause a short, controlled burst of pain administered to distract a trainee who is seriously misbehaving in order to bring the incident to a swift and safe conclusion. The nose distraction technique had been applied to a 14-year old called Adam Rickwood, who committed suicide at Hassockfield STC on 8 August 2004. His mother was the applicant in the Pounder case.
  1. At the core of this appeal is the fact that officers at the STCs who applied these various restraint techniques at the material time genuinely but mistakenly believed that the law entitled them to do so for the purpose of maintaining good order and discipline (GOAD). It was definitively established that there was no such entitlement only after the deaths of Adam Rickwood and Gareth Myatt: see paragraphs 14 and 35 of the judgment of the Divisional Court in C ([2008] EWHC Admin 171).

 

 

 

It was clear, and not disputed that these techniques were used on children who were very vulnerable.

 

 

  1. 9.       “It is unequivocally accepted by the Defendant that children in custody are amongst some of the most vulnerable and socially disadvantaged and that they have specific needs which may not be common to the wider population of young people.”

 

 

And it was clear that this happened to a significant number of ‘trainees’ in these institutions

 

  1. 15.   “76… [I]t is highly likely that a large number were indeed the subject of unlawful force at times during their detention, probably from the beginning of the STC regime until at least July 2008. Whilst the use of restraint for GOAD after July 2008 could, of course, have occurred, it is probable that no-one sought formally to justify the use of restraint for such a purpose after the judgment of the Court of Appeal in C.

77… [T]here can be little doubt that a large number of detainees were treated unlawfully at various times during this period. There is no reason to suppose that the situation was materially different at any other time in the history of the STCs at least until July 2008. There is other evidence in the material before me (that I do not need for this purpose to set out in detail) that distraction techniques… were also used as a regular part of the repertoire of force used in STCs. It is, as I have suggested before (see paragraph 14), difficult to see how a distraction technique would ordinarily be used in isolation from a restraint technique. If used as part of a restraint for GOAD, a painful (and often injury-producing) technique would have been used for an unlawful purpose.

78. Leaving aside any conclusion that may be drawn in due course about what the court could or should do about all this, it is, to say the least, a sorry tale…”

 

 

 

The telling and difficult thing for the Childrens Rights Alliance, which is why they invited the Secretary of State to take steps to inform the particular children that they had been illegally restrained and when, was that many of the individual children would not have known at the time that what was happening to them was illegal and would give rise to a claim now

 

  1. At the end of paragraph 91 Foskett J stated that very few, if any, of the trainees appreciated at the time that what was done to them was unlawful. Earlier he had said this:

“88… I do not think that there can be any doubt that in the vast majority of cases the detainees made the subject of a restraint technique would simply have accepted it as part and parcel of the routine in an STC. Furthermore, at least during the period with which this case is concerned, it is likely that if a complaint had been made, the substantive answer to it would have been that the officers who used the restraint techniques were justified in using the force considered necessary at the time.”

 

 

 

Following through the judicial review principles (which is pretty dry and beyond my interest in this piece), the Court of Appeal concluded that there were no grounds for judicially reviewing the Secretary of State’s refusal to carry out this exercise and therefore the court at first instance had not been plainly wrong to refuse it.

 

 

Of course, and the Court hint at this – there is nothing within this judgment which prevents or would inhibit any individual child who had been detained at an STC in asking for information about their records and whether they had been subject to illegal restraint.  But what the Childrens Rights Alliance had wanted was not for the individual children to be obliged to “Pull” to get their rights, but for the Secretary of State to “Push” and be obliged to notify them that they had been treated illegally.

 

 

It is a sobering experience to read of these things happening to children in custody, and reminded me vividly of the Pindown crisis.

 

That might well be ancient history for some of my readers, so I will elaborate.

 

In the 1980s, in Staffordshire, a method of discipline was introduced in children’s homes for children in care who were being difficult or hard to manage, involving locking them in rooms on their own for periods at a time, this method of discipline being called Pindown. It lasted for various periods, but for one child, it lasted for 84 consecutive days. It caused a scandal when it came to light, with World in Action doing a documentary on it, and was the subject of a significant public enquiry.   (In large part, it led to the construction of the legal principles in the Children Act 1989 about “secure accommodation”)

 

 

Very sadly, I have struggled to find a copy of the Pindown report which was written by Allan LevyQC (sadly no longer with us) and even Amazon  say  “Currently unavailable. We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.”

 

 

Perhaps this is an example of George Santayana’s well worn remark that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  And for the modern era, those who hide away public enquiries and don’t ensure that access to them is easily found online shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t know the contents.

 

 

Of course I understand that staff on the ground in a Secure Training Centre are doing a difficult job, one that I wouldn’t want to do, and that the children detained there are not little Peter Pan figures full of cheeky (but ultimately harmless) mischief, but incredibly disturbed and challenging young people.  I do understand that managing them is hard and that if guidance was given to those staff that “figure four armlocks” were okay, they were going to follow that guidance.  It is the people who gave them that guidance who let the children down.

 

 [As an incidental detail, I note that in Russia, this armlock technique is known as the ‘militia’ armlock because it is used by the Russian militia and police…. ]

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