OK…let me be clear from the get go…I’m pretty jaded and did not expect to be shocked by the content of last night’s Panorama: Teenage Prison Abuse – but I was…
I thought I would see some excessive and inappropriate use of restraint, some swearing at the kids and that kind of thing. I did not expect to see staff openly engaging in a culture of thuggery and sadism. It was appalling, cruel, disturbing, a genuine outrage and so on and so forth.
But the mutual venting of spleens will not prevent it from happening again (or, more realisitcally, continuing to happen). And the sacking of a few frontline staff won’t make much difference either (although, of course they should be sacked). We need to understand why it happened and to do that we need to think about some very uncomfortable truths.
Here is one: I have never deliberately hurt or caused harm to a child I have looked after – but I have many many times been within a hair’s breadth of doing so. I have certainly felt very angry with children in my care and I have restrained children too quickly, for too long and with more force than was probably needed. I have made sarcastic comments, shouted and sworn – I have done all these things. Even with children I have sincerely loved.
I don’t consider myself to be like the thugs filmed by Panorama – I have empathy, compassion, knowledge, understanding and patience. I worked for five years in a children’s therapeutic community and I am now training to be a child pyschotherapist. So how could I behave in this way?
The children I have looked after (and this will apply to those in Medway) are profoundly traumatised – because of their experiences of the world and early years care. Because of this they have significant emotional health issues (mental health means something different and is not appropriate in most cases, behavioural issues is essentially meaningless – the behaviour simply being an outward expression of their emotional world).
However, these emotional health issues can lead to them behaving very unpleasantly indeed. They really can be horrible to be around – abusive, violent, denegrating, cruel and unbelievably frustrating. Being alongside them for 40, 50, 60, sometimes 80 hours a week is a hugely difficult task. However much empathy and understanding you have – being abused will lead to a human, emotional response. Indeed, they want you to have this response and working out why they do is essential if you are going to help them. Certainly they will not be helped by sentimentalising them.
If you have restrained a child and he tells you he can’t breath then obviously you should let go – but if you are kicked in the head when you do then you will think twice before letting go the next time. That’s right – some young people will pretend they can’t breath so they can hurt you. When it happens, how easy do you think it is to remain calm and think about the child’s difficult past and what his or her behaviour might be “communicating”?
This is only survivable at all if the person who is recruited is made of the right stuff to begin with and is reasonably well intergrated. If there is a culture of “thinking” – where everyone is engaged constantly in trying to understand the young people in both formal and informal discussions. If you have a trained supervisior who can listen to you when you say “I felt like breaking the kid’s arm” and think with you about why. The institution must have a thought out and holistic therapeutic model and a genuine sense that it is trying to achieve something with the young people – otherwise you are just a human being in a room, being spat at and called a cunt.
None of this means what happened at Medway STC is at all acceptable or that the individuals in the film are not responsible for their own actions – they are.
The main question that needs to be asked about applicants to work at Medway is “why do they want to work at a place where children are locked up?” The majority will not be sadistic, controlling bullies but if you happen to be a sadistic, controlling bully then it’s certainly a job you might be drawn to.
G4S sold the idea that none of this mattered. You could hire staff on the cheap and it could all be managed by procedures and guidelines. G4S will take the hit here (at least I hope so) but successive governments are complicit. It is not that they knew what was going on and turned a blind eye, it’s not that they didn’t care – they encouraged it.
In my youth I worked in the kitchen of the local Pizza Hut. Every morning I would go in and change the use-by dates on the tubs of pizza toppings. This was simply one of my daily tasks and I was told to do it on my first day. Now, if we had been caught doing this by the FSA inspector then the managers of the branch would have been fired. Pizza Hut would have denied all knowledge -they would have said it was outrageous and in complete contravention of their policies. But what they did was pay managers a small basic salary and give them bonuses for reducing the “cost of sales” or in other words for reducing wastage. The fiddling with food dates was not an accidental by-product of the bonus scheme but the sole intention behind it.
The most revealing part of last night’s Panorama was the fact that G4S are hit with financial penalties for “losing control” of the prison (which was defined as more than two prisoners fighting). The programme focused on the inevitable dodgy recording of incidents (which would, by extension, benefit the government’s own statistics). They failed to notice it also encouraged the methods of control used by the staff at Medway.