The BBC’s Panorama program aired shocking footage of detention center officers are seen treating young boys aged 14-17 held at Medway Secure Training Centre in Rochester, England, with such aggression and racism that the treatment may amount to torture or ill-treatment under English and international law.
The prison is managed by the now, negatively, notorious private security contractor G4S. The contractor has been paid £140,000 per year per child held in Medway, more than five times the average annual salary in the U.K. The panorama exposé put together by undercover journalists revealed that G4S staff allegedly slapped a teenager several times in the head, pressed heavily on the necks of young people, used restraint techniques unnecessarily (including squeezing a teenager's windpipe so he had problems breathing), and bullied boys using foul language to frighten and intimidate (including boasting about mistreating young people such as using a fork to stab one in the leg). One boy is seen crying uncontrollably. Staff tried to conceal their behavior by ensuring they were beneath CCTV cameras or in areas not covered by them. The boys expressed terror at being taken beyond the range of areas covered by CCTV.
Seven members of staff at the unit have been suspended. Initially, G4S said the center's Director, Ralph Marchant, would stand aside immediately but remain employed by the contractor. It seems that Marchant may have resigned in the last two days. Director of the immigration removal centers at Gatwick airport, Ben Saunders, has taken over the running of Medway.
Five G4S staff have been arrested and held on suspicion of child neglect but have been released on bail until April pending further investigation. It is unclear whether the police and prosecutors considered bringing charges of torture or ill-treatment. Yet, if the allegations of criminal conduct by G4S staff against the boys detained at Medway are proven to be true, there is a strong case for suggesting that the treatment would amount to torture under English and international law.
G4S is no stranger to allegations of abuse, from Palestine to the UK. In September 2015, it lost its contract to run the Rainsbrook young offender facility. The secure training center had been run by G4S for more than 16 years, but was graded inadequate in May last year as a result of the degrading treatment of detainees.
The allegations of misconduct by private contractors managing places of detention are not limited to G4S, they also extend to SERCO where staff have faced allegations of sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood, the women’s immigration removal center. Despite the horrific allegations of mistreatment in privately run facilities, this government has continued to extend the privatization of the justice system, selling-off probation services to companies managed by the government’s friends. Privatization of these services is fraught with problems.
In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government promised a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ in English and Welsh prisons. But, over the past five years, detention centers, youth offender facilities and prisons in England and Wales have seen squalid overcrowding leading to conditions deteriorating to their worst level for 10 years.
In prisons, murder rates are at their highest levels in a decade. Political and policy failures in jails have seen a 69 percent rise in self-inflicted deaths. The depressing reality is that the conditions at Medway may not be anomalies.
Staff shortages and a rising prison population have contributed to a significant overall decline in safety. Last summer, prison officers at Wormwood Scrubs took the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, to prison cells so vile that the officers told him: “I wouldn’t keep a dog in there.” Hardwick found filthy cells in cockroach-infested wings. “It cannot go on like this. The cost is unsustainable. The profound effects on rehabilitation outcomes are unsustainable,” said Hardwick.
The typical portrayal of a British prison in the tabloid press is of a luxury hotel where staff see to the every needs of a criminal population. Yet, most cells are so small that you can practically touch both walls. As one person eats their meals on the table the other has to eat it on the bottom bunk next to the toilet. Cuts to funding have meant that many prison services have disappeared. Training and education activities now seldom take place. A fifth of the prison population spend less than two hours a day out of their cells.
While prison conditions are drastically deteriorating the government has taken away the right of prisoners to have free legal representation to challenge the conditions under which they are held. The government’s 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act took this right away.
At the same time, the government has also increasingly encroached upon the work of the “independent” prisons inspectorate. Two weeks ago, Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspectorate of Prisons, revealed that the previous Justice Secretary Chris Grayling had attempted to influence the contents of previous reports on conditions in immigration removal centers, youth offender facilities, and prisons. The Ministry of Justice has also tried to control the Chief Inspectorate’s budget, causing Hardwick to claim that the department is seeking to keep certain places of detention out of view from public scrutiny. Nick Hardwick stepped down with an attack on the Ministry of Justice for compromising the independence of Britain’s prison inspectorate by demanding “day-to-day control.”
Independent inspections are vital to safeguarding the protection of detainees, who are detained as punishment, not for punishment. The attempts of this government to slowly strip mechanisms of accountability are striking. The G4S abuses at Medway are just the tip of the iceberg, and clearly demonstrate the need for oversight over all places of detention, and over the implications of government policies in prisons, immigration centers, and youth custody facilities.