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Wednesday, November 02, 2005 

Private companies running young offenders institutes are fiefdoms.

This story will be buried by the Blunkett aftermath and vote on the terror bill, but this is a scandalous story which deserves much larger public knowledge.

A former Labour minister called for the contracts of two privately run child jails to be terminated yesterday after they refused access to a Home Office team investigating their use of physical restraint techniques on teenage inmates.

Sally Keeble, Labour MP for Northampton North, told the Commons that the unpublished report from the inquiry team, which included medical experts, recommended that more than 20 restraint techniques currently in use be scrapped. She said physical control was routinely used in Britain's four secure training centres, designed to hold the most troublesome 10- to 17-year-olds.

The highest use of restraint was at two centres run by Rebound, a subsidiary of GSL Limited, one at Rainsbrook, near Daventry, Northamptonshire, and the other at Medway in Kent. The official review of physical control techniques was triggered by the death of Gareth Myatt, 15, in Rainsbrook in April last year.

"I understand that these two secure training centres did not provide admission to the consultants employed by the Home Office to carry out the review of physical control in care," said Ms Keeble. "In these circumstances, the contract with the private company responsible should be terminated because they have not demonstrated that they are able to provide a regime that is either appropriate for the staff, or safe for the young people."

Ministers have modified some of the restraint techniques but decided to ban the use of only one of them - the "seated double embrace" which was involved in Gareth Myatt's death.

Contrary to the unpublished recommendations of the review team, ministers have allowed the continued use of a painful "karate chop to the nose" technique and a "thumb distraction" method.

Ms Keeble told a Westminster Hall debate yesterday that the "nose distraction" put staff at the risk of being bitten, and "thumb distraction" involved an adult hand restraining a child's thumb and had the potential to cause more injury than other techniques.

"How on earth do we, in the 21st century, manage to run a regime for young people that includes an equivalent of thumb screws?" she asked MPs.

"In at least one of the institutions, in place of the seated embrace a standing hold is used. But children are still being bent over - and it is bending that is so dangerous because this is what prevents breathing. During the course of my investigations I actually have had some of these holds demonstrated on me, and once shown, the risks are evident."

Official figures showed that restraint was used 3,289 times in 2003 and 1,228 in the first few months of 2004 in the four secure training centres.

There are 274 places in all the centres, and 322 "trainees" went through Medway in 2003 and 289 through Rainsbrook. The average age of those sentenced to detention and training orders is 14, and half of them are unconvicted teenagers on remand awaiting trial.

Fiona Mactaggart, the Home Office minister, denied there was a routine use of physical restraint in the centres and said that only a "tiny minority" of such incidents involved inflicting pain.

"We need to protect other trainees and the staff themselves in potentially violent incidents. We need to have ways that we can distract children who are behaving dangerously," she told Ms Keeble.

But she admitted that staff were increasingly using handcuffs as an alternative to the physical control techniques. Ms Mactaggart also confirmed that restraint was being used to ensure the compliance of the trainees and not just to defuse potentially violent situations.

The government is paying private companies to hold some of the most sensitive inmates in its care, and those companies are then refusing to let the public's representatives visit the prisons to ensure that children are not being harmed. Not only should their contracts be withdrawn immediately, the companies should be banned from running for government contracts in the future. We are not talking about children that have been convicted of anti-social behaviour or more heinous crimes, half of these are on remand and not been convicted. The whole story brings back echoes of the horror of Borstals, and unless the government acts to improve conditions and gain access to these prisons, they will be complicit in destruction of these children's future.

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