Children’s lives in custody matter too

Becky Shepherd
Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Gareth Myatt also said he couldn’t breathe. He was told by prison officers who were restraining him at the time that if he could talk he could breathe.

Minutes later he was dead. Gareth was a 4’ 10’’ mixed race 15 year old who was restrained to death by three prison officers in 2004 in Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre, privately run by G4S. Gareth was killed through the use of the Orwellian-sounding ‘seated double embrace’, a manoeuvre in which the victim is essentially folded in half while sitting down, head thrust between legs, while a grip is maintained on the back of the neck and the arms are pinioned. It takes a special mind to name a restraint technique which can crush the victim to death after a type of hug. 

Remembering Gareth

Outside criminal justice circles, Gareth Myatt’s name does not have much public recognition. He wasn’t killed in front of horrified witnesses, his death caught on camera phone, unlike George Floyd. However, there are similarities between the two tragedies. Both were killed at the hands of the state, starting from a disproportionately trivial dispute, and in both cases the killing took some time. The indescribably awful footage of Mr Floyd’s death shows that his killer had almost nine minutes in which he could have taken his knee off Mr Floyd’s neck, but he chose not to. His colleagues made the same choice. His life was, to them, not worth preserving.

Gareth was killed over a sandwich toaster. His punishment for refusing to clean a sandwich toaster he said he hadn’t used was to be sent to his room, and to have a number of his belongings confiscated. During his room spin one officer took the piece of paper which had the only copy of Gareth’s mum’s new phone number. His response to this was to raise his small fist and become agitated.

Three prison officers restrained him by bending Gareth’s little body in half, forcing his head down between his legs and effectively crushing his internal organs together. His insides were so squashed he defecated and then vomited before he died. Even when he said he couldn’t breathe his killers seemed indifferent to the risk of their actions. He was held in the restraint position for several minutes after he had already lost consciousness. It was his first time in custody. He survived three days.

The invisibility of children in custody

The social media distribution of footage of US police extrajudicial executions has been instrumental in raising public awareness of these killings, and has provided a clarion call to the resurgent and essential Black Lives Matter movement. In contrast, children in custody live and die off-camera, largely invisible to the public eye. One example of this is the lack of awareness about how the COVID-19 lockdown is affecting children in custody in the UK - who are disproportionately likely to be Black due to endemic over-representation in the youth justice system.

The government’s response to the pandemic has been to impose a much greater degree of lockdown in young offender institutions and in secure training centres, with the ceasing of family visits and many other aspects of the normal prison regime. Some children are spending only an hour and a half each day outside their cells. Schooling has likewise come to a halt.

This has indirectly imposed a level of isolation akin to solitary confinement, recognised by the UN as a method of torture. The impact of no education, no family visits, very limited time out of cell, and separation from peers risks a sharp increase in self-harm and suicide attempts. When considered alongside the depressingly consistent problems of pain-inducing behaviour management techniques, physically violent restraints, racism, mental health problems, and multiple other vulnerabilities, custody risks becoming literally unbearable for some children.

The use and misuse of solitary confinement

Indeed, inquests into child custody deaths often show that a period of solitary confinement (known euphemistically as ‘separation’) has preceded the suicide. Knowing that your child took their own life rather than being directly killed by the state provides no comfort to bereft families. Their beloved is still irrevocably, unbearably gone.

This invidious situation does not detract from the herculean work being undertaken by many dedicated prison staff working ceaselessly to help children cope in this unprecedented situation, in woefully understaffed environments which place officers at risk too. However, the lack of leadership from government on this issue undermines their hard work.

A more humane response to children

A morally coherent government response would prioritise children’s welfare, and not seek the absence of a virus at the price of such a steep collapse in bearable conditions. More humane measures could include a much-needed moratorium on sending children to custody; widespread early release into youth offending supervision, and distancing measures to enable immediate resumption of family visits.

The government has reached deep into its pockets recently to aid economic survival in the pandemic. Children’s custody establishments desperately need this help too, including funding for additional mental health and youth work support services to help children traumatised by months in isolation, and extra teaching resources and staff to help children catch up on missed education. Education attainment is already woefully low in custody. These children are going to emerge from custody into a global recession and must be protected. Long-term exclusion from the labour market inflicts significant damage, including increased risk of further prison terms.

It is a truism that much can be learned about a country based on the quality of its prisons, particularly its children’s prisons. We must acknowledge that these small fragile lives matter too.

Becky Shepherd is a Lecturer in Criminology at London South Bank University and a former probation officer. She is also one of our trustees.