The worst place in the world

Carolyne Willow
Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Before the Strangeways protests, children were incarcerated with adults.

The death of 15 year-old Philip Knight while on remand in Swansea prison, just a few months after the Strangeways protest started, triggered an outcry in the media and Parliament; such was the shock and anger, a television documentary was made about him. Adopted as an infant, Philip started showing behavioural problems from around the age of seven, and was ‘returned’ to care aged 14. His death in the hospital wing of an adult prison was the catalyst for legislation ending prison remands for children under the age of 17. The ban on child prison remands was never implemented, though the honourable response would have been to remove children from prisons altogether. 

Child deaths in prison

Since Philip’s death in 1990, 34 more children have lost their lives as prisoners. An official analysis of those who died between 2000 and 2012 found at least 69 per cent had been the subject of a care order. This is where a family court grants a local authority parental responsibility for a child. It is the highest form of state protection we offer to children. Kevin Henson’s mum died from cancer on his 14th birthday. Before he hanged himself while on remand in Feltham prison, in 2000, he told his dad that it was the worst place in the world. A civilised society would protect a child who expresses this level of unhappiness and terror. Instead, we’ve had two more decades of scandals and Feltham was recently included in a new prison support plan – alongside five adult jails.

What are the rights of the child?

The UK signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in the year of the Strangeways protests, and ratified it in 1991. Successive governments have been responsible for implementing the treaty’s wide-ranging provisions, including:

  • children’s best interests to be a primary consideration;
  • the right to maximum survival and development; provision of assistance to parents;
  • protection from all forms of violence;
  • the right to the highest attainable health;
  • the right to education;
  • arrest, detention or imprisonment to be a measure of last resort, and
  • positively bringing children who offend back into mainstream society.

In 2018, the UN special rapporteur on the right to health summed up the treaty’s obligations:

There can be no hesitation in concluding that the act of detaining children is a form of violence. The Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits the use of detention as a default strategy. Looking forward, a child rights-based strategy must strengthen even further the presumption against detention of children with a view to abolition.

Penal policy makers: a world of cognitive dissonance

A new type of prison for children barely out of primary school, the secure training centre, was fashioned after we took on the treaty’s obligations. Penal policy makers live in a world of cognitive dissonance, but pledging to implement the UN children’s rights treaty then going on to contract two multinationals (G4S and Serco) to lock up 12 year-olds reached a new height of institutional hypocrisy. A BBC Panorama exposé of serious child abuse in Medway secure training centre in 2016 led not to its closure but a government decision to use the prison building and site as its first experimental secure school.

The UK has been before the Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva on four separate occasions, and every time there’s been scathing criticism of the numbers and treatment of children in custody – including the authorisation and training of staff to deliberately inflict pain as a form of restraint.

The refusal to give up pain-inducing restraint

After the restraint-related deaths of two boys, Gareth Myatt and Adam Rickwood, in secure training centres in 2004, a new system of restraint was developed. “Almost all” of those who submitted to the restraint review established in response to the boys’ deaths “passionately argued against” pain-inducing restraint, but the penal system wouldn’t give it up. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and Youth Justice Board promised it would be used rarely and subject to robust scrutiny. Now, my charity is having to appeal to an FOI tribunal because the MoJ claims it doesn’t centrally collect information on the reasons why children are subject to these brutal techniques.

This is a system incapable of reforming itself in the interests of children. Child prisons must close.

Carolyne Willow is the Founder Director of Article 39 charity, which fights for the rights of children living in institutional settings in England.