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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.