Medway Young Offenders Unit Panorama Video links with Studio 3 Response

This BBC TV program recently went undercover to expose abuse of young people being hurt and threatened by custody officers who are supposed to protect them in a young offenders unit in Kent in the UK.
The program makers had to use secret filming to expose the uncomfortable evidence of young people being hurt and threatened by custody officers who are supposed to protect them. Introduced as an expert in the field of managing difficult behaviours and having been shown the film made by Panorama reporter Robert, Andrew McDonnell identified misuse of restraint techniques in particular and explained, specifically, the impact of role model acceptance of such behaviour on young minds regardless of their backgrounds.

This teenage abuse took place in a privately run youth prison, paid more than £10m in 2015 by the government to provide high-quality education and to rehabilitate some of the most vulnerable youngsters in the prison system. It houses 70 boys and girls accused of wide range of crimes from theft to murder. In particular the program reveals some officers mistreating their charges and many more tolerating the behaviour or even helping to cover it up. Quite harrowing TV in places, but helpful.

This kind of initiative by the BBC will typically be supported by Studio 3 as it is in line with our ethos and philosophy.

Studio 3 is committed to changing the cultures within organisations to promote top down development as well as training and supporting all professionals and carers.

Resulting investigations have been escalated and within the month progress is made:
In a joint HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Ofsted report urges UK Justice Secretary Michael Gove to establish a commissioner to “provide increased oversight, scrutiny and challenge of managerial arrangements in particular in relation to the safeguarding of young people” at the centre in Rochester.
“Managerial oversight failed to protect young people from harm,” he said
The local G4s Director has stepped down.

BBC Video Link (UK)


Andrew’s Reflections on the Program ..

The BBC Panorama documentary aired on Monday 12th January was truly shocking, we witnessed excessive use of force by staff at Medway Training Centre in Kent. As an expert who was asked to comment on the practices for the BBC I was reminded about the Winterbourne View undercover documentary  which similarly described abusive practices of staff supporting adults with intellectual disabilities.

The context of this documentary is even more alarming. There were two notable deaths in 2004 in the Youth Justice System. Gareth Myatt was incarcerated in Rainworth and died during the implementation of restraint. Adam Rickwood was in Hassockfield STC when he became the youngest child in Britain to die in custody. He hanged himself shortly after being restrained for the first time in his life.  The new rules, brought in after the deaths in custody in 2004 of Gareth Myatt, aged 15, and Adam Rickwood, aged 14, allowed restraint when it was thought necessary to ensure good order and discipline.

Gareth Myatt and Adam Ringwood, who died in custody in 2004.

gareth Myadam rickwood

The furore caused by this led to a series of reforms regarding training.

In 2008 the UK High Court banned specific physical  restraint methods on young people in secure training centres (STCs) – including pulling back thumbs – have been outlawed for the use of maintaining discipline today by the court of appeal.
Two restraint techniques were suspended the “nose distraction”, involving an upward chop against the septum, and the “double basket”, whereby the arms are crossed and held behind the back.
But staff had still been able to pull back thumbs and implement other “physical control in care” methods in England’s four privately run STCs: Oakhill in Milton Keynes, Hassockfield in County Durham, Rainsbrook in Northamptonshire and Medway in Kent.  Further revisions of training led to an improved training system for staff by the Youth Justice Board.

The Documentary

The Documentary, aired in January, showed senior staff members demonstrating unreasonably aggressive responses to young people. We saw excessive use of pain compliance methods, blatant bullying and intimidation and most alarmingly staff falsifying incident records. The written guidance for staff by the YJB is very clear about the use of force.  ‘An officer in dealing with a trainee shall not use force unnecessarily and, when the application of force to a trainee is necessary, no more force than is necessary shall be used’. In addition provocation was also identified ‘No officer shall act deliberately in a manner calculated to provoke a trainee.’ Clearly, guidance is not enough.
Whilst, it is true that some children have committed serious crimes this can never justify such responses. It is often the case that society should be judged by how it treats the vulnerable. This documentary shows that there is a great deal of work to be done. The Prison service has accepted that there are issues at Medway and have recommended the use of cameras.

How do we change practice?

  1. The evidence from the BBC documentary shows clear failures in these systems. Training can never be enough to alter practice especially when issues are systemic in nature. There are several areas in my opinion that require improvement.
    A focus on organisational culture: Organisational cultures can have dramatic impact on the behaviour of individuals key to this is the ‘organisational message’. In the case of Medway is the philosophy.  Are we placing vulnerable people in such situations to keep the public safe? Are children there to be rehabilitated or punished. The evidence suggests that the current approach leads to high reoffending rates.  For me the YJB needs to further develop an ethos of rehabilitation of young people.  In my opinion an ethos of non confrontation, my own personal view that a low arousal ethos that encounters positive engagement and better crisis management would be effective in addition, adopting a trauma informed approach that focuses on the vulnerability of these young people is essential.
  2. Training of staff and on the ground and direct audit of practice: Whilst, it is true that the YJB  did reform its training the documentary clearly demonstrated that the application of this training was at best inconsistent and at worst ineffective. Training is only one aspect of the process. There needs to be a stronger bridge between the ‘classroom’ and the practices ‘on the ground’. Coaching staff directly would enhance training regimes. Trainers in my opinion need to strongly be involved in the direct audit of practice. In addition, the use of wearable camera technology will also help.
  3. Environmental design: Secure facilities need to provide safe environments. The present design of buildings in my opinion reflect a prison ethos. You could argue that this is the purpose of such environments, however, research does indicate that the quality of  environments greatly influences behaviour. Placing distressed individuals together from a psychological perspective is poor practice as there is a lack of positive role models. I am also struck by the fact that we place vulnerable children with other individuals who may cause them harm. The solution to the environmental issue is clear. Secure environments do not have to be prison like in nature, greater use of smaller semi secure environments is needed. All of this requires government investment.
  4. A focus on humane treatment. The UK has a long history of developing rehabilitative approaches, these ranged in Victorian England from the use of so called ‘moral treatment’ advocated by Quakers to the reduction of restraints in institutions. Society has a conflicted view of the needs of young offenders. In my opinion a greater emphasis needs to be placed on rehabilitation. We can punish kids, we can lock them up or we can try to rehabilitate as many as we can.

Conclusion: Foster Hope

When reflecting on these issues I always have a focus on how to develop a positive psychological approach. For me the simple answer is that we must foster optimism and a ‘can do’ approach: If a young person is to be encouraged to change their behaviour, then, they must be introduced to a more optimistic therapeutic approach.  I have worked with young people who only focus on the day to day as the see no hope for themselves, literally no future. Giving people a pathway out of crime is the only option.