A little while ago there were a few stories in the news, and some outrage in my Twitter feed about Rainsbrook STC’s most recent Ofsted report. It’s come to light that practice in this particular institution is really poor. There have been incidents of staff using racist language towards young people, taking drugs, and generally acting inappropriately in the role of ensuring young people’s safety and rehabilitation. I was not at all surprised when I saw these reports, and I think this may not actually show the whole scale of problems at Rainsbrook. I also think that these issues are unlikely to be isolated to this one facility, and are linked to the staff culture in privately owned prisons.
This is a big claim for me to make, and requires some explanation. I briefly worked at Rainsbrook STC in 2008. I left pretty quickly into starting the job, because some of the things I saw there upset me deeply, to the point where I didn’t feel comfortable working in that environment. For me the breaking point was seeing a young person being physically restrained. I understand that sometimes this may be necessary to prevent a young person from a greater harm, but the use of restraint I saw was in my opinion, unnecessary. There are specific techniques for physical control that staff are trained in at Rainsbrook, tending to focus on restricting a young person’s ability to move. Seeing this in practice shocked me, I felt like I had seen two adults assault a 14-year-old for no reason.
There are guidelines for how and when physical control techniques should be carried out. Restraint should be a last resort, with other approaches to keep a young person calm or resolve a situation used first. Unfortunately, the staff training at the time I was there didn’t focus on these other techniques, but a lot of time was spent on restraint, at the time known as ‘physical control in care’. In addition to the techniques included in the guidelines, our trainers also showed us how to use a particular restraint technique that had been banned. They acknowledged that it should never be used, but showed us how to do it anyway. It’s essentially punching someone in the nose in a way that’s likely to cause a fracture.
I was also surprised by how guidelines and security measures were treated by members of staff. I was told not to bother with security searches by more experienced members of the team, as they were apparently pointless. The culture there wasn’t one of rehabilitating young people, or even recognising that these young people had problems that may have been strongly linked to their behaviour. I know that not everyone will agree with my pretty liberal views about criminal justice, and that other views are equally valid, but I was shocked that in a place that is supposed to be working with young people to help them desist from future offending, they were largely seen as a group of thugs who need to be contained.
Since I left that job, there have been changes in the way physical restraint is used against young people, now called MMPR, which has three levels of techniques: low medium and high. This doesn’t include pain inducing techniques which may be used in certain situations. At Rainsbrook only 3% of MMPR instances used low level techniques. High level techniques were used in 40% of instances. I would have hoped that those figures were the other way around, but I’m not surprised.
I think we need to change the way young people who are detained in custody are perceived and treated. Between April and September 2014 there were 1226 used of force against young people in STCs and YOIs. That’s too much by anyone’s standard.