Howard League blog · 13 Mar 2019
The convictions of five former staff for assaulting boys in Medomsley detention centre comes after the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found more than 1,000 allegations of sexual abuse of children in jails. The history of incarcerating children and young people is littered with sexual abuse and violence.
I think the violence has changed over the years. In the early 1990s we heard of systematic violence being inflicted on boys in Portland young offenders’ institution. We conducted an inquiry and adult men came forward with horrific stories of how they had been beaten by staff in a system called ‘the Portland way’. It involved making boys run down a red line drawn in the segregation block whilst staff battered them. At the time we didn’t think to ask about sexual abuse, but we later discovered that Neville Husband started his abuse of boys in Portland prison in the 1960s. He was moved to Medomsley and carried on sexually abusing teenagers.
At the same time there was systematic violence inflicted on prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs – valiantly revealed by the lawyer, Daniel Machover – and regular beatings in other prisons. This was known about and seen as a way to control prisons and inflict pain on the prisoners people disapproved of, or on anyone who was troublesome. Any assault is against the law. Even if the people in charge did not support it, the fact it continued for so long suggests it was tolerated.
We have gone from a system where the bruises show to a system where the harm inflicted is hidden
I think that violent control of people, including children, in prisons has transmogrified into something more sophisticated but just as brutal. They no longer get ghosted down to the segregation cells for a beating. Instead they are contained in isolation for hours, days, weeks, months. What was a cultural acceptance of violence has become a tacit acceptance of ways of treating people that is cruel and inhumane.
Teenage boys in Aylesbury are being placed in isolation for weeks on end. Children in young offenders’ institutions are being held in isolation for weeks on end. This is systemic abuse.
No one is denying that many young people in our jails are difficult; of course they are. But the state has taken responsibility for them away from their parents because of that. Holding young people – or, for that matter, adults – in virtual sensory and social and intellectual isolation for excessive periods of time is the wrong thing to do. They need skilled, patient and loving care.
Prisons no longer tolerate systematic violence meted out to young prisoners; instead there is structural abuse that in many ways is more insidious and more violent. We have gone from a system where the bruises show to a system where the harm inflicted is hidden. I like to think that what happened in Medomsley could not happen again. I have nightmares about what has replaced it.