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22nd January 2016

The Medway Secure Centre

On Monday 11 January 2016 the BBC broadcast a Panorama program concerning the Medway secure centre for young people in South East England. An undercover reporter who had been employed there took covert film which showed shocking practices by some staff in how they looked after the young people. The reporter was placed there by the BBC in response to previous allegations of assault and abuse against the young people.

The scenes filmed and broadcast were distressing, for the young people involved and for those watching. There seemed to be intimidation and bullying by staff, apparent evidence of deliberate provocation, inappropriate and unnecessary restraint, restriction of breathing and infliction of pain. Staff appeared to gloat about their prowess, and about falsifying records and evading CCTV coverage of their exploits.

Responses to the film

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for prison reform, said: “Watching this programme made me cry. The deliberate cruelty against children was one of the most upsetting things I have seen in this country. Shocking also was the institutionalised fraud being perpetrated to cover up that abuse." I share her sentiments, and I too was crying as I watched.

The Government have called meetings with G4S who run the centre, and at least one MP has called for the centre to be closed immediately. Seven staff members currently have had action taken against them: 4 have been sacked, and 5 staff have been arrested. The BBC on 8 January 2016 reported that G$S attempted to prevent the broadcast of the film, saying the film was illegal and unauthorised.

A distressing aspect of this episode for me is how little mainstream news coverage it has achieved. One national newspaper I read did not mention the program at all on the day after the broadcast, and subsequent news reports were to be found only well into the papers, close to the back pages. This is in contrast to the level of national coverage gained by Panorama in 2011 of its filing of abuse at the Winterbourne hospital for people with learning difficulties. The issues were remarkably similar: intimidation, abuse, inappropriate and deliberately engineered restraint.

The need to change

I wondered if the contrast in the news coverage is down to different images being portrayed. 'Young Offenders Institution', as this centre is known by, and the young people known as 'inmates', is unlikely to maximise sympathy for what are after all children as young as 12 years old. However serious their crimes, their vulnerability surely demands more sympathetic and positive treatment than that which was demonstrated here.

The Youth Justice Board, who oversee three of the centres, issued an annual report which stated that Medway had piloted new training during 2014/5, on good practice in restraint. This was later rolled out to other centres. Let’s hope the poor practice evidenced here by Panorama has not also been rolled out in other places. The report also spoke of how the Board had contributed to a review of how the UN Convention in the Rights of the Child was being complied with in the UK.

I concur with one observer, who stated that more appropriate treatment from a range of helping professions would be available in local authority secure centres. This would help to avoid the stigma of being in what is essentially a private prison, albeit commissioned and overseen by the government.

There are lessons to be learned, as there was in Winterbourne, even though the slow pace of change after that episode does not inspire confidence here.

Firstly, there should be an inspection regime which essentially does what the undercover reporter did: share day to day life with the staff, assessing attitudes and having private talks with young people.

Secondly, rehabilitation, being the main objective of the centre, could be encouraged more creatively that simply fining the provider if control is lost within the unit. How about financial supplements if re-offending rates decline beyond a certain level?

Thirdly, perhaps most importantly, perhaps the era of the 'YOI' has passed, and provision could be more appropriately supplied in more local LA secure units: this has promising reverberations with the recommendations from Winterbourne, of more localised provision replacing centralised institutions.

Perhaps the only benefit of this shocking episode is that it will stimulate thinking which may lead to reform, to better care and to reduced levels of re-offending. These children and young people need to have a safer and more secure future for themselves now, and as they pass into adulthood.

Tony Clarke – QCS Expert Scottish Care Contributor

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