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Article 39 and Napo

Poor afro-american teenager standing by metal fence, life difficulties concept

Joseph Scholes took his own life in 2002 aged 16, in Stoke Heath YOI, by hanging himself from a bedsheet tied to a window bar. He was a deeply disturbed boy who had previously slashed his own face repeatedly, leaving blood spattered over the walls of his children’s home. His family had informed the prison repeatedly about his mental health issues and suicide risk, as had his YOT worker and the Court psychiatric report. Due to his vulnerability he had been kept in a supposed ‘safe cell’ for 6 days – his first time in custody – without a visit from his family, with no personal possessions, and dressed only in a supposed safe garment (described at his inquest as like a ‘horse blanket’). He was not even allowed underwear. Unsurprisingly he literally could not bear to live in those conditions. At his inquest the coroner recommended that a public enquiry be held into how he came to be sentenced to custody given his vulnerabilities, why he was placed in a YOI, and whether his suicide was preventable. This was supported by 77 MPs in a House of Commons debate. Then-Home Secretary David Blunkett rejected the recommendation and a public enquiry has never been held into his death.

Gareth Myatt died at the hands of 3 officers at Rainsbrook secure training centre in 2004 while being forcibly restrained. He was 15, weighed 6½ stone and was under 5 feet tall. He was a vulnerable child with a history of being in care and had been subject to racist bullying since primary school. Lest we forget, the vast overrepresentation of BAME children in custody is another ongoing national scandal, as is the well-documented care-system-to-prison-pipeline, which for these two boys proved fatal.

Gareth was sent to custody for three minor offences – breaching his YOT order, stealing a bottle of beer and pushing a member of care home staff. His room was emptied following a disagreement about cleaning a sandwich toaster – a vastly disproportionate response, as was the restraint that followed. In the room sweep an officer took the only copy of his mum’s new phone number. This led to a row in which Gareth was restrained by three officers in the ‘double embrace seated restraint’ – which involves effectively bending a young person in half by forcing their head down toward their knees when seated, while having their arms restrained. His internal organs were squashed together with such force he defecated and then vomited. He told the staff ‘I can’t breathe’. He was told if he could talk, he could breathe. Minutes later he was dead from positional asphyxia.

These tragedies are recounted in meticulous and angry detail in Carolyne Willow’s book Children Behind Bars (2015), which documents the 33 young people who have died in prison in the 30 years since the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was created. Carolyne Willow is the director of Article 39, the charity which works to safeguard the rights of children in the care of the state and to campaign to end child imprisonment.

Members who lasted until the very end of AGM 2019 may remember passing a motion for Napo to affiliate to Article 39. This article is to give members some more information about Article 39 and their current campaigns that Napo is supporting, specifically the campaign to end child imprisonment.
Article 39 campaigns for the rights of children living in institutional settings in England – prisons, immigration detention, children’s homes, boarding and residential schools and mental health units. This includes approximately 80,000 children. The name is taken from Article 39 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Article 39 runs www.rights4children.org.uk which is designed to enable children living in institutional settings know their rights and access help. It also advocates for more child-friendly public policy by working to influence government policy, and has set up a network of independent children’s advocates, and supports legal challenges on issues of safeguarding children’s rights.

For a new charity – set up in March 2016 – Article’s 39’s impact has been significant. It coordinated the successful ‘Together for Children’ campaign – which Cafcass members may be familiar with from Cafcass section AGM in 2016 – to prevent the draft Children and Social Work Bill enabling local councils to opt out of their legal safeguarding duties in children’s social care. Article 39 also took a legal challenge against the use of pain-inducing restraint on children during journeys to and from secure children’s homes. (In the children’s homes themselves these techniques are forbidden as abusive.) In February 2019 the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse concluded that pain-inducing restraint is a form of child abuse and should be legally prohibited overall, which Article 39 continues to campaign for.

Since November 2018 Article 39, with the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, the Howard League, INQUEST, Just for Kids Law and the National Association for Youth Justice, is coordinating a national campaign to End Child Imprisonment. The End Child Imprisonment campaign has already secured its first MP’s debate on the topic, in June 2019, proposed by Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck. Napo members know that it is the disadvantaged, the marginalised and the traumatised who end up behind bars. We know that a brutalising prison environment actively mitigates against rehabilitation, as former child prisoners appear in the adult courts with dispiriting regularity.

History is likely to look back on the practice of wrenching children from homes and families to place them in filthy and unsafe prisons with a mixture of disgust and bafflement, as with Court-mandated floggings or Victorian child labour practices. The tide of public opinion against child imprisonment needs to be turned. I would urge all members to contact their MPs to advise them of our opposition to children’s prisons, and to actively support the work of Article 39.

Article 39’s full list of campaigns and achievements can be found on their website – www.article39.org.uk.

Becky Shepherd, Greater London Branch

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