As a solicitor specialising in human rights and abuse cases, I’ve represented many vulnerable people whose rights have been violated.
It’s certainly hard to imagine more vulnerable members of our society than children who are in prison, but a recent article by children’s rights campaigner, Carolyne Willow, has highlighted some alarming findings and a need for urgent improvements in the way that child prisoners are treated.
Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that no one shall be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment. For prisoners, article 3 means they have the right not to be abused and that the state has an obligation to prevent abuse from happening. Article 3 is an absolute right, meaning that there can be no exceptions to it under any circumstances.
Abuse of Children in Prison
Carolyne Willow’s article describes some shocking examples of children who have been abused in prison.
The power that prison officers wield over their young detainees is immense and, tragically, children who are abused often suffer in silence – either out of fear or thinking that nobody would believe them.
A particularly heart-breaking story that Carolyne recalls is that of retired prison officer Christopher Pearce who was given a 12-year jail sentence in 2011 for raping and indecently assaulting a young girl prisoner over a period of up to six years.
During the trial, the court heard how Pearce began abusing the girl when she was six and how he had raped her over 200 times. Pearce committed his sickening crimes over a 20-year period at Acklington prison in Northumberland.
As Carolyne Willow asks in her article, how can such unsuitable staff have been employed by the prison service for so long?
The Problem of Routine Strip-searching
Described by the Howard League for Penal Reform as “an unnecessary, degrading and barbaric practice”, the routine strip-searching of child prisoners is a major problem as prison officers who carry out abuse often have regular sight of children’s naked bodies as a regular part of their job.
In 2007, the prison service began eliminating strip-searching in women’s prison but decided to leave the policy intact for children.
In 2011, the Youth Justice Board promised that the routine strip-searching of children would stop, but a Guardian article two years later revealed that this promise was being flouted, with over 40,000 recorded incidents in a 21-month period. The youngest prisoner to be strip-searched was just 12 years old.
Are Prisons Failing to Protect Children?
Some of the appalling cases of child abuse described by Carolyne Willow point to a culture of institutional child abuse at some UK youth prisons.
Consider another case: that of Russell Thorne, who was acting governor of Downview Women's Prison in Surrey when he was jailed for five years in 2011. The jury heard during trial how Thorne coerced a young prisoner to engage in sexual acts with him. Further allegations emerged of sexual abuse by prison staff at Downview and a Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by Carolyne Willow revealed that the alleged abuse was either investigated internally by the prison or that no further action was taken.
We’ve campaigned for a law on the mandatory reporting of child abuse for some time at Slater and Gordon. If such a law was in place when Russell Thorne, Christopher Pearce and John Cornwell – to name just three offenders mentioned in Carolyne’s article – then the abuse of vulnerable child prisoners could have been prevented after the first allegation of abuse was reported.
Child prisoners are still at a huge risk of abuse, as another FOI request by Carolyne Willow revealed that at least 62 prison officers in juvenile prisons had been disciplined for child abuse. She also discovered an alarmingly low rate of CRB clearance among prison staff employed at youth offender institutions.
This is very worrying indeed as it implies that staff who have not been CRB cleared are free to strip-search vulnerable children in a closed institution without any accountability to anyone outside the prison.
I’ve recently blogged about the need for a culture change regarding child prisoners’ human rights and now call for an end to the barbaric practice of strip-searching that all too often plays a role in facilitating the abuse of vulnerable children by prison officers.
Kim Harrison is the National Practice Development Leader for Human Rights at Slater and Gordon Lawyers UK.
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