By Paola Uccellari
The plans for a huge child prison in the government's criminal justice and courts bill represent a failure to learn lessons about children's human rights.
In January justice secretary Chris Grayling announced plans to build Europe's biggest child prison. Euphemistically called a 'secure college' the proposed facility is, in reality, an enormous new prison built to save costs by warehousing children and contracting out its running to private sector companies such as Serco and G4S.
This goes against a wealth of evidence about what works best for children in contact with the criminal justice system.
The government admits that children in custody are vulnerable and damaged – commonly with disturbing histories of abuse, bereavement, care experience, mental health problems and disabilities. Prison does not help children turn their lives around. Where children are kept in custody, they do best in small, well-staffed units such as Secure Children's Homes, which are set up to address the complex problems which lie behind the child's behaviour.
Instead of acting on this evidence, the government's 'secure college' will hold 320 children in an establishment ill-equipped to meet their needs. There are significant child protection problems with the plan, with children as young as 12 years old and the small number of girls who go to prison to be incarcerated with a vast number of older boys.
As advocates for children's rights, we have been working with other concerned charities, including the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, to ensure MPs understand the reality of what is being proposed. It is welcome news that Labour has pledged to oppose the plans in parliament and will scrap the entire project if they win the next election.
The government's plans are based on an empty promise that education will be a central part of life in a secure college. There is nothing in the bill to back this up: there are no provisions on the hours of education to be delivered and no requirements for any staff to have teaching qualifications. We are waiting for an answer to our Freedom of Information request asking the Department of Education how involved they have been in developing the plans.
A shocking aspect of the bill's proposals would allow staff in secure colleges to use potentially fatal restraint on children to enforce 'good order and discipline', a practice which could be illegal. In 2008 the courts ruled that using force for these purposes breaches children's human rights because it can cause serious harm and was not shown to be necessary (the court referred to evidence that in secure children's Homes restraint is not used to enforce good behaviour by children convicted of an offence). Restraining children for reasons of "good order and discipline" is no more necessary now and it is just as dangerous today as it was in 2008.
This is about life and death for children. The 2008 case was triggered by the deaths of children in custody who had been restrained for failing to comply with orders. Fifteen-year-old Gareth Myatt protested when prison officers in a G4S-run secure training centre tried to remove a piece of paper from his room, which had his mother's mobile phone number on it. He was restrained by three officers who ignored his desperate pleas that he couldn't breathe. Adam Rickwood was 14 when he took his own life after being restrained by four members of staff in a secure training centre run by Serco.
Following these deaths the government promised 'lessons will be learned' and overhauled the rules so that 'good order and discipline' was no longer a justification for using restraint on children in custody. The proposals in the criminal justice and courts bill show that, ironically for plans that have been sold as being about education, the government is failing to learn those lessons.
Paola Uccellari is director of Children's Rights Alliance for England
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