Legal action over govt’s failure to protect vulnerable children in custody

By Adam Bienkov

Children held in privately-run secure training centres are being regularly subject to physical abuse by staff, a leading penal reform charity has warned.

The Howard League for Penal Reform have sent an open letter to justice secretary Chris Grayling calling on him to bring in a new independent complaints system or face judicial review.

"Giving children access to justice, fairness and redress when an institution is abusive is absolutely fundamental" chief executive Frances Crook said.

"Over the past hundred years there have been too many cases of children being abused in institutions. Unless they are listened to we will see more disasters."

Children restrained while in secure training centres were seriously injured or showed life-threatening warning signs 285 times between 2006 and 2011, according to government figures.

In 2007, fifteen-year-old Gareth Myatt died in custody after being held down by three members of staff at the Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre in Northamptonshire.

Myatt had told staff that he could not breathe, before choking to death on his own vomit. The incident followed his refusal to clean a sandwich toaster.

Another inquest found that the use of "distraction techniques" had contributed to the death of fourteen year old Adam Rickworth in 2004.

Rickworth was found hanged in his cell at Hassockfield Secure Training Centre in County Durham after being subject to a sharp painful blow to the face known as the "nose distraction technique."

The technique was banned in 2008. A later inquest found that staff at the Serco-run centre were not properly trained in suicide awareness or behaviour management.

Secure training centres are designed for children judged too vulnerable to be held in prison.

However, unlike prisons, detainees do not have access to an independent complaints procedure. The privately run centres are also exempt from freedom of information requests.

The Ministry of Justice said today that restraint should always be a last resort.

"Young people in custody are some of the most vulnerable in our society; their safety is our priority and restraint should only ever be used as a last resort" a spokesperson said today.

"There are a number of routes for young people to take, if they have a complaint regarding their treatment in custody. We are looking into the points raised by the Howard League, and will respond in due course."