Building a UK super-prison for children is a terrible idea.
The Ministry of Justice’s bizarre plan includes a regime of physical punishment and restraint that would be a recipe for child abuse.
The Ministry of Justice has come up with the idea of building a super-prison for children as young as 12, at the core of which will be a regime of punishment and physical restraint. The jail will house around 300 boys and a handful of girls, and includes a planned unit for babies in case the girls get pregnant.
No one, but no one, supports this bizarre proposal, except for the companies that would profit from building the £85m complex. The government has refused to publish the rules or any details about what it is euphemistically calling a “secure college”. Next week the House of Lords will scrutinise the legislation and consider an amendment suggesting the whole idea be put on hold until more details are published.
What we do know is that the use of force by staff would be a part of the regime. The bill permits staff to use force to maintain good order and discipline, which was found to be unlawful in 2008 by the court of appeal.
Two children have died in custody because of use of force by staff. Gareth Myatt, 15, choked on his own vomit while he was being restrained and Adam Rickwood, 14, hanged himself after restraint that involved staff deliberately inflicting pain.
The use of restraint to maintain order has generated concern because it is unlawful and dangerous. The teaching unions, the children’s commissioner and parliament’s joint committee on human rights have all condemned the proposal.
The justice ministry published a consultation in response to widespread concern. The intention is to allow the use of force on children “to maintain good order and discipline where a young person poses a risk to maintaining a safe and stable environment”. This is so vague that it could involve a child arguing in class or, as in the case of Gareth Myatt, refusing to clean a sandwich toaster.
Children who end up in custody have almost always come from backgrounds of violence, abuse and neglect. They need patient and expert care. They need to learn to trust and behave respectfully. They need affection and good examples from staff. Custody is their home for months on end; they have little access to the outside world, are not permitted to use the internet, cannot receive calls from family, and have only brief and public visits.
The Howard League for Penal Reform published an independent review of the use of restraint on children in custody conducted by Lord Carlile QC. He found that staff resorted to violence too often, and that it was counterproductive and too often used on children with learning difficulties, and black and minority ethnic children.
It is disingenuous of ministers to spin the project of a super-prison for children as an attempt to redress educational deficits. Education has been cut in child prisons in the last month, so that children in Feltham get less than nine hours a week. As a former teacher, I am passionate that children should enjoy the best possible educational opportunities but ministers must not pretend that prison is the place where this can be achieved: certainly not when staff will be allowed to use violence.
There is no need to build a new jail for children. The good news is that child custody has been reduced significantly. The handful of children who need custody should only be held in the small secure homes that are run by local authorities and which have provided safe care for years, successfully helping children into education, employment and a crime-free life. The government’s plan is flawed, dangerous and a recipe for child abuse.