We must do more to protect children in prison

Bleak and brutal: HMYOI Brinsford. David Jones/PA Wire

The chief inspector of prisons has identified the single worst prison he has visited – and, scandalously, it’s a jail for children. HMYOI Brinsford in Wolverhampton is filthy, squalid and has levels of violence and drug abuse that are three times greater than the prison’s target while the use of restraint and use of batons was “often disproportionate”.

According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, the child custody population for February 2014 was 1,183 of whom 54 were aged between 10 and 14 years of age. These are among society’s most vulnerable – and impressionable – people, yet their early experience of life is too easily tainted by fear and violence.

Just over a decade ago Paulo Sergio Pinheiro was appointed to direct the United Nations secretary-general’s study on violence against children – the most wide-ranging and detailed analysis of its type in history. The final report which was published and presented to the United Nations General Assembly in November 2006 reaches a starkly depressing conclusion: violence against children is an endemic feature of the global landscape. Pinheiro had previously raised particular concerns about what he termed: “the recurrent and banalised use of institutionalisation”.

This casts a long shadow in England and Wales, where history is characterised by persistent failure, misery, scandal, human suffering, abuse and violence. The world of the child prison (not unlike the adult prison) is sharply stratified and is organised in accordance with both formal and informal hierarchies and pecking orders of power, control, intimidation and subordination.

Such stratification is both complex and fluid, creating a near-permanent sense of insecurity and uncertainty whereby child prisoners are routinely exposed to myriad forms of violence: physical; sexual; psychological; emotional and verbal (name-calling; threats; racist, sexist and homophobic taunting).

For all child prisoners, multiple and intersecting expressions of violence perpetuate fear, damage and harm. For some child prisoners the cumulative effects of such violence are too much to bear and self-harm is not uncommon. In such cases the pains of confinement are relieved only on release.

For other child prisoners “release” takes a fatal form. Between 1990 and 2012, 33 children died in penal custody in England and Wales, 31 in state prisons and two in private jails.

On one level, state agencies acknowledge the harmful and violent rhythms of penal regimes and, ultimately, the loss of 33 children’s lives. Numerous authoritative research reports, statutory inspections , academic publications, campaign initiatives, televised documentaries, radio broadcasts and journalistic pieces have profiled such phenomena and, in this sense, it would be absurd to feign ignorance. But acknowledgement, such as it is, is conditioned and filtered.

The bald facts of the violence, violations, abuses, harms and, ultimately, deaths, are registered – but the wider contexts in which they are located, their true meanings and their full implications are, to paraphrase Stan Cohen not fully digested. They have “sunk into consciousness without producing shifts in policy or public opinion” or, just as significantly, without holding those responsible to account. In a deeper sense, therefore, the violence, even in its fatal form, is denied.

The tightly circumscribed nature of acknowledgement is such that, despite the deaths of children in custody, not a single independent public inquiry has been initiated. Indeed, the UK government and relevant state agencies have steadfastly resisted authoritative calls for a transparent, comprehensive and truly independent inquiry into child deaths in penal custody in England and Wales.

In February 2014, the ministry of justice announced that the Independent Advisory Panel (IAP) on Deaths in Custody is to be tasked with reviewing – within narrow terms of reference – self-inflicted deaths of 18-24 year olds in penal custody. Child deaths are omitted from the “review” and will seemingly remain, officially at least, largely ignored within a culture of British state violence in which impunity and lack of accountability will continue to prevail.


A conference in Liverpool on May 16 – How Violent is Britain? – will examine this issue in detail. This is part of a series of articles on this theme on The Conversation.

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