Howard League blog · 20 Feb 2017
Problems with the complaints system – taking a decade is unacceptable
Almost ten years after the event, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) has completed his investigation into the use of force by staff on a 15 year old child with learning difficulties at Hassockfield secure training centre (STC) in 2007. Hassockfield has since been closed down but it had been run by Serco for more than a decade, indeed the company was paid £1m by the government even after the institution was closed.
The investigation into the use of force by staff was instigated by the Howard League. It involved a lad who we will call Ben, who refused to go to bed one night and linked arms with other children. Staff used a violent force of restraint and his wrist was broken.
This was the first case from an STC to be referred to the PPO. The Howard League has just received a final decision on Ben’s complaint about his mistreatment. The PPO found he was wrongly restrained for ‘good order and discipline’ which was in breach of the STC Rules. The PPO also found that the Youth Justice Board’s investigatory processes were inadequate and failed to hold the STC to account for its failures.
As Hassockfield closed in December 2014, the report makes no specific recommendations for the establishment. The PPO has made a series of strong recommendations with wider implications for all children in STCs:
- The Chief Executive of the Youth Justice Board should apologise to Ben
- Monitors must understand that they must hold STC contractors to account
- Within three months of the issue of this report the Chief Executive of the YJB should ensure that Monitors have a proper understanding of their role in holding STC contractors to account, particularly in relation to the use of restraint, and should provide evidence of the steps that have been taken to achieve this
- The Chief Executive of the YJB should ensure that Monitors receive copies of the annual reports from Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards about the use of restraint in secure establishments in their area.
The current Chief Executive of the YJB has written to apologise to Ben and confirmed that the Board will take on board the recommendations made by the PPO.
It should be remembered that in 2007, when the incident took place, the then-Chief Executive of the YJB (who was married to the head of the prison service) vigorously (and disgracefully) defended the use of violent restraint by staff on children in a Parliamentary hearing.
There are serious problems with the complaints system.Taking a decade is unacceptable. Even after the complaint reached the PPO, investigators refused to interview Ben or other young people or staff involved, making the dubious claim that due to the passage of time their recollections would not be reliable.
On a wider issue, the PPO has received only five complaints from young people at STCs, all of them referred by the Howard League. The question is why other bodies working with children in these private child jails didn’t take forward serious complaints about maltreatment? The PPO published a Learning Lessons report in 2015 discussing why women and children in custody do not submit complaints to PPO, finding that a lack of trust and lack of clarity were some of the main reasons for not submitting complaints. Nevertheless, organisations paid to protect children in custody should be making use of every avenue to make sure they are, in fact, protected. Even if it takes a decade.
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I recall Stephen Shaw, the then Prisons’ Ombudsman, having learned that we operated in HM YOI Feltham, telling me at a networking event that he never received letters or complaints from young people in prison. At that time, we operated in 7 different YOIs. Having encouraged one young man in HM YOI Rochester to write to – and have his heart rending letter about his hopes for the future published in – ‘Inside Time’, the prisons’ newspaper, who had also noted that they never heard from young offenders, it emerged from my discussions with inmates in other YOIs that young people have a strong mistrust of what will happen to their letters, who will read them and what reaction might they generate. There is also the problem of low literacy levels in SOME of the juvenile and young adult population, many of whom, born in the digital age, have seldom, if ever, communicated by letter. There MUST be a better and safer method whereby young and often very vulnerable people in prison, arriving totally unprepared for the circus of horrors that many YOIs turn out to be, are able to communicate their fears and complaints to the outside world. Their view is often that the IMBs are, in SOME cases, little more than a ‘tea and biscuits’ opportunity to meet the governor of the day for a ‘reassuring’ chat. My conversation with Stephen Shaw took place in 2004 – 13 YEARS AGO!