The Howard League for Penal Reform is to challenge the government over its failure to implement an effective and independent complaints procedure for children detained in privately run Secure Training Centres (STCs).

In an open letter before action addressed to Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, the charity’s legal team points out that:

* children are placed in STCs because they are considered especially vulnerable;
* children are regularly subjected to mistreatment, including the use of physical force by staff sometimes leading to injury;
* the law requires that children with credible allegations of mistreatment should have access to an effective and independent investigation;
*there is no such system for children in STCs whereas children and adults placed in prisons because they are purportedly less vulnerable have access to an independent complaints system.

The letter challenges the Justice Secretary to confirm that he will implement plans to change the system in a fixed time frame or face a judicial review.

Children at risk of mistreatment in STCs

Although official figures show that children in STCs are often injured as a result of being physically restrained by staff, there is no independent body to consider their complaints.

Figures published by the Ministry of Justice in January this year showed that, during the year 2011-12, there were on average 111 incidents of physical restraint per month in STCs. These affected more than 18 per cent of children detained in STCs, many of whom were subject to more than one restraint per month.

In the same year, 68 restraint incidents resulted in injury.

The government has confirmed to the Howard League that a total of 285 exception reports were submitted by STCs concerning warning signs or serious injuries detected during or following the use of physical control in care between 2006 and 2011.

System out of kilter with law

Howard League lawyers contend that the current complaints procedure for children in STCs is ‘wholly inadequate’. Their letter claims that it is ‘unfair, discriminatory and contrary to the protections afforded by the European Convention on Human Rights’.

The letter continues: “The Howard League for Penal Reform has represented and assisted children in prison since 2002.

We are deeply concerned by this on-going failure which we can see affects the safety of children in prison and the accountability of staff.

We therefore invite the Secretary of State for Justice to put in place a complaints system for children in STCs forthwith that is fit for purpose and includes an accessible right of appeal to an independent body.”

Legal anomaly

Prison Bars by Andrew Bardwell via Wikimedia Commons

Prison Bars by Andrew Bardwell via Wikimedia Commons

This anomaly has been criticised by the Youth Justice Board (YJB), which recommended in 2011 that children in STCs should have an independent body to appeal to.

At the request of the Howard League the YJB commissioned ad hoc investigations by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) into the treatment of three children, including one whose are was broken following a restraint by staff. These children had complained over several years about serious mistreatment in STCs. The investigations are on-going.

By contrast, children in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), who are considered to be less vulnerable than children in STCs, and adult prisoners are entitled to an independent review by the PPO. In addition, prisoners are given the added protection of an independent monitoring board comprising members of the public.

Prisons are also subject to Freedom of Information, whereas the STCs being run by G4S and Serco are exempt.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Giving children access to justice, fairness and redress when an institution is abusive is absolutely fundamental.

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.

These child jails for profit have existed for 20 years yet there has been no proper public scrutiny of what has happened to the billions of taxpayers’ money.

We have to make sure children know they will be listened to by someone fair and impartial when things are going wrong if we are to change the culture of impunity, change poor practice and avoid children being seriously mistreated.

Two children have died in STCs. Adam Rickwood, 14, took his own life at the Serco-run Hassockfield STC in County Durham in 2004 after being subjected to an unlawful use of force. In the same year, Gareth Myatt, 15, died while being restrained by three staff at the G4S-run Rainsbrook STC in Northamptonshire.

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