The brutality of the shadow state: the use of force on teenagers in custody

Children have suffered from broken bones including wrists and elbows, and had teeth knocked out in Young Offenders' Institutes. But too many - abused at home too - do not know that their treatment was illegal.

At 15, Gareth Myatt was small for his age - four foot ten and six-and-a-half stone. He was three days into a six-month sentence at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre in Northamptonshire, run by G4S, for stealing a bottle of beer and assaulting a social worker at a children’s unit when he refused to clean a sandwich toaster in the dining area.

Two members of staff followed him to his room and began removing things. One of them tried to take away a piece of paper from the shelf, which contained his mother’s mobile phone number. He lunged at the staff member. The two members of staff, now joined by a third, restrained him.

They used a technique called a seated double embrace: two of them forced the boy into a sitting position and leaned him forward, while a third held his head. What happened next was described in appalling detail at the inquest by one of the staff members and subsequently reported by the Observer:

[A staff member] looked back and said he had [...]shat himself. The struggling seemed to go on for a while and then he seemed to settle down. After a few minutes we realised something was wrong. I looked at his face and he had something coming down his nose and he looked as if his eyes were bulging. I can't remember much more. I've tried to get it out of my mind.

Gareth had choked to death on his own vomit.

At his inquest it emerged that before he died, at least four other children had complained of being unable to breathe while being held in the seated double embrace. The technique was subsequently removed from use within juvenile custody.

Four months later, Adam Rickwood, a 14-year-old boy with a history of mental health issues, was involved in an altercation with Serco staff at Hassockfield secure training centre, in County Durham, where he was on remand for an alleged wounding charge. The staff ordered him to return to his cell from the social area. When Adam refused to go back to his cell and instead sat on the floor, back-up was called and he was physically removed.

Four officers restrained him - two holding his arms, one holding his head and one holding his legs. Adam was placed in the cell face down. At the time, staff were using a technique called “Physical control in care” (PCC). It’s described as "non-pain compliant", but if it becomes necessary to gain control during the procedure the method authorises “distraction” techniques which cause pain to the young person. As a result of legal action by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), the “secret” PCC manual was finally disclosed in July 2010. It showed that staff were authorised to use techniques that caused pain to the thumb, ribs and nose. In Rickwood’s case, a member of staff, fearful the boy might bite his fingers, used a nasal “distraction” - deploying the outside of his hand in an upward motion on the boy’s septum, leaving his nose swollen and bruised.

A few hours later Adam’s body was found hanging in his cell. He’d left a note in which he wrote that he’d asked the staff what gave them the right to hit him in the nose. He was the youngest child to die in penal custody in the last 25 years. In January 2011, following a second inquest, a jury found that before and at the time of Adam’s death, there was a serious system failure in relation to the use of restraint at Hassockfield. The jury also found that the restraint was a contributing factor to his death.

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There’s a reason I’ve revisited these stories from 2004 - particularly the second. In the aftermath of the Rickwood case, it was emphasised that the use of force was unlawful, because it should not simply be used to enforce “good order and discipline”. It seems that between 1998 and 2008 Serco and G4S staff in young offenders' institutions either ignored or misunderstood this rule. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that during these years the Youth Justice Board, who have overall responsibility for making sure that children in custody are properly cared for, seem to have been confused about what was allowed under the rules: they were never properly reviewed.

In response to the Rickwood case, the Labour government attempted to change the rules to try and make it lawful to use force on children simply for good order and discipline: this was rejected by the Court of Appeal in July 2008. The use of force purely to maintain order remains unlawful.

As a high court judge, Mr Justice Foskett, concluded last year, this means that many children placed in detention centres between 1998 and 2008 - and possibly later - are likely have a case for assault against the contractors who run them. The claim followed a private case brought by the CRAE, to try and compel the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to contact potential victims of breaches of the rules so that they could exercise their right to seek redress. The judge concluded these children “were sent [to Secure Training Centres] because they had acted unlawfully and to learn to obey the law, yet many of them were subject to unlawful actions during their detention. I need, I think, say no more.”

The judge decided the MoJ had no legal obligation to contact them, but said: "It probably requires just one former detainee, looking back at his or her experience in an Secure Training Centres and having conducted the necessary preliminary inquiries, to pursue a well-publicised claim and others will be alerted to the potential of pursuing matters."

What’s interesting is that since this judgement, now a little over twelve months ago, very few claimants have come forward. It’s odd because all the evidence suggests there could be thousands of potential cases. During the hearing it was estimated that each month, force was used an average of 350 times across four Secure Training Centres, and that there may have been as many as 85 incidents of unlawful force every month. This went on for a period of 10 years.

Carolynn Gallwey is from Bhatt Murphy, the solicitors who represent Children’s Rights Alliance for England. They have been approached by just a few claimants. She tells me: “It’s sad that children haven’t come forward. I think the biggest factor is that the children to whom I’ve spoken all come from the most dysfunctional backgrounds you can imagine. Bluntly, they’re used to abuse. I suspect the main reason we’ve not heard from them is purely because they don’t suspect the treatment they’ve received is in any way illegal.”

And it’s not like the use of force is in great decline. There are around 2,000 children in custody at any one time in England and Wales – more than in any other country in Western Europe. According to the YJB there were 6,904 incidents of (reported) restraint in 2009/2010, of which 257 resulted in injury. The average proportion of young people in custody who were restrained increased from 11 per cent in 08/09 to 12 per cent in 09/10. In one child jail, G4S-run Medway, children were restrained 229 times last year: 13 complained they were unable to breathe.

And quite apart from the restraint cases, lawyers from the Howard League for Penal Reform have represented children who have suffered from broken bones including broken wrists, elbows, teeth knocked out and bruises all over their bodies. There were 142 injuries recorded as a result of restraint on boys in YOIs between April 2008 and March 2009. For the period April 2007 and March 2009, 101 injuries were sustained by children during restraint at Medway STC. The injuries included cuts, scratches, nosebleeds, bruising and sprains.

The Howard League has collated testimonies from many young children who have left YOIs and STCs. They detail the threat of violence: (“One of the officers spoke to me through my door and said that they were ‘going to make me scream later’”), and outright physical and mental assault: (“Several times while I was being restrained, they deliberately hurt me by bending my thumb down so that it touched my forearm. This was really painful. I often had bruises under my upper arms and scratches down my arms after PCC. I sometimes had panic attacks when I was in my room after a PCC”).

The evidence is clear: once the floodgates open, we’re going to hear a great deal more about the brutality of the shadow state.

A prison guard, unrelated to the cases discussed here, on duty. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser