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'Restraint Is Intrinsically Unsafe' - The Government Is Ignoring the Lessons of the Past, With Potentially Fatal Consequences for Children

21/10/2014 10:15 BST | Updated 20/12/2014 10:59 GMT

The Ministry of Justice has published details of how its new child super-prisons ("secure colleges") will be run. Sold as all about putting "education at the heart of custody", the plans are scant on detail about how children will be helped via education and health services, but contain 15 astonishing pages on discipline, punishment and control.

Prison guards will be allowed to use force to make children behave themselves (to "maintain good order and discipline") - putting children's lives at risk. Our fear for children's safety is not based on guess work. Two children died in prison when this was tried in the past.

Gareth was 15 when he died while being restrained. He had refused to clean a sandwich toaster and was locked in his room. Gareth protested when officers tried to remove a paper containing his mother's contact details from his room. Three officers then restrained him - forcing him to sit and pushing his head down so that his body was doubled over. Gareth's cries that he couldn't breathe were ignored. He vomited and defecated in the six to seven minutes before he died. This was Gareth's first time in custody. He weighed just 6½ stone and was less than five feet tall.

Adam Rickwood was 14 when he took his own life after being restrained. He clashed with a much older man, was charged with wounding, and was sent to custody on remand, in a prison which was a 300 mile round trip from home. One night, Adam was ordered to go to his room without explanation and, for the first time, he refused to comply with a staff order. Four adult males "restrained" Adam, using a technique which involved a blow to the nose. Adam's nose bled for an hour before he was found hanging that night.

It is difficult to imagine how a child, detained far from home in a scary, prison-like environment, must feel when restrained. One official review concluded:

"The degree of violence and abuse to which many of these young people have been subjected in their short lives....is of huge concern to a civilised society.... Even where [restraint] does not end in physical injury the experience and the memory can be profoundly damaging psychologically". (Smallridge, P and Williamson, A)

The Court of Appeal found that using force in children's prisons to maintain "good order and discipline" amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of children's human rights, because restraint is so dangerous, carrying risks of asphyxiation, broken bones, nerve-damage and vomiting, and is unnecessary.

The many official reviews, inquests and court cases which followed the deaths of these two boys, established that, in order to keep children like Adam and Gareth safe, the use of force in children's prisons must be allowed only in very tightly limited circumstances, when it is absolutely necessary, and guards must be clear about when and how force can be used. This makes sense given that one MoJ-commissioned review found:

"We learned very early on in the review that there is no such thing as 'entirely safe' restraint. Restraint is intrinsically unsafe". (Smallridge, P and Williamson, A)

In an astonishing disregard for the rule of law, and children's safety, Grayling's plans for secure colleges ignore the Court of Appeal ruling and all the lessons about how to keep these very damaged children safe.

Of course, prison guards must - and do - have the power to use force to prevent children from harming themselves, and others, and to prevent escape. But reinstating rules which allow force to be used for "good order and discipline" flies in the face of the recommendation that force must be used sparingly. It is a broad, subjective "catch all" justification, allowing force to be used in almost any situation. The need for clarity has also been ignored. The new rules are confused and confusing. A poorly-qualified prison guard, faced with making an urgent decision in a stressful situation, stands little chance of understanding the limits of their power. This is unfair for them, and could be fatal for the children involved.

Not only is this dangerous and wrong in principle - it won't work. Specialist schools and secure children's homes, which care for the same group of troubled children who might one day find themselves in a secure college, do not use force to enforce good behaviour and, in fact, warn it would be counter-productive to do so.

It is difficult to explain Grayling's decision to push ahead with these dangerous plans. One can only guess that the private companies that will run "secure colleges", forced to save costs - an explicit motivation behind the plans -will find it easier to run understaffed "secure colleges" with these powers, than without. Convenience and cost-savings are not, of course, a justification for breaching children's human right to be safe when in the care of the state. They must never become so.