Of course the use of overt physical violence to control socially marginalized and powerless children in penal-type institutions is nothing new and for decades Borstals and Detention Centres operated regimes that were intrinsically brutal and designed to teach a "tough lesson" based on fear and intimidation. The death of a child in the notorious Reading Detention Centre in the late sixties partially exposed the regime of terror that operated in such places, although the state was always careful to maintain the illusion that it neither sanctioned or created the violence routinely inflicted on children in such custodial settings. More recently the extraordinarily high incidence of suicides, self-harm and death in suspicious circumstances of children in Feltham Remand Centre suggest that intimidation and brutality remain the standard methods by which children in custody are treated and controlled.
Thirty children have died in penal custody since 1990, the youngest, Adam Rickwood, was just 14 years old. Just over a third of boys and girls in custody have felt unsafe at some time. One in ten boys and girls in prison say they have been hit, kicked or assaulted by a member of staff.
Traditionally the state has never publicly admitted or condoned the deliberate use of violence against children in custody, which is why the statute authorizing the use of overt brutality in subduing "disruptive" children inmates was so disquieting and shocking. In fact, so horrific was the scenario of state-sanctioned thugs physically brutalizing children in a prison setting that the more liberal elements in the government in the form of the Parliamentary Joint committee On Human Rights announced that it would be reviewing the use of such "restraint" methods in children's' prisons, claiming that such methods had been introduced without any reference to human rights legislation. Subsequently children's minister Beverley Hughes announced that she was suspending the methods pending a report by a panel of medical experts. Her concern was obviously not based on any moral reservations about beating up children in prison, but simply a worry about possible legal consequences.
In October of 2007 the Prison Officers Association offered it's own enlightened contribution to the issue of controlling disturbed and already brutalized children in jail by calling for a change in the rules that would allow prison staff to be able to use batons on children as young as 15.
The psychological damage inflicted on children in custody is well-researched and well known; 85 per cent of prisoners in youth custody institutions show signs of personality disorder, with 10 per cent exhibiting signs of severe psychotic illness such as schizophrenia. Into this mix of mental suffering and pain the state wants to throw some good old fashioned physical brutality. This by any definition is child abuse and it is systemic and organized, and thousands of working class children are irreparably damaged by it.
The state's assault on the rights and freedoms of working class children under New Labour has been sweeping and vicious, and the number of 15 to 17 years olds in prison custody has increased by 86 per cent since Labour took office. In tandem with this mass criminalization of already socially disadvantaged children is the creation of prison regimes openly designed to brutalize them even more.
The media and tabloid press, usually very keen to whip up hysteria and a climate of hatred against child abusers when campaigning for tougher laws, have remained consistently quiet about the abuse of children in closed institutions, creating a silence and invisibility around these children that increases their vulnerability and ill-treatment. Each year over 70,000 children are dealt with through the criminal justice system and around 12,000 of them are incarcerated in penal-type institutions that are no more than training grounds for the adult long-term prison system. This represents the wholesale destruction of young working class lives in the interests of a system that is itself inherently anti-social and predatory towards the poor and powerless.
The imprisonment of children is barbaric and one of the worst forms of state cruelty, and unless we speak out and campaign against it we are all in some way complicit in it.