The abuses uncovered at the Medway Secure Training Centre run by G4S are shocking and disgusting. But they are not unique.
Disturbingly, many of the behaviours seen in the BBC’s Panorama exposé echo those observed in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). The experiment placed a group of emotionally and mentally stable young men into a mock prison in the basement of the university, and randomly assigned them roles as either prisoner or guard. Those assigned the roles of guards quickly became abusive and sadistic, and the prisoners quickly became submissive and largely subservient.
The BBC’s film shows one custody officer berating an inmate for not having cleaned his room correctly. When the child makes an interruption about how he wants his room, the officer screams back ‘you’ll have your room how I ******** say you’ll have it!’. In the SPE, the guards quickly developed similar methods of arbitrarily exercising power over the prisoners, such as dragging their bedsheets through bushes and having them remove the debris, or requiring them to clean the toilets with their bare hands. Throughout the experiment, the guards would often strike doors and surfaces with their billy clubs to show their dominance and power – something also seen in the BBC’s film as one of the guards slams a wall in front of one of the young inmates.
Luckily, at the end of the day, the Stanford Prison Experiment was just that, an experiment. It was called to a halt prematurely because of how out of control it became. The lead experimenter, Philip Zimbardo, acknowledged his role in allowing the abuses to spiral dangerously due to a lack of effective oversight. A lack of effective oversight, combined with an economic incentive to circumvent reporting mechanisms, is in part what allowed abuses at Medway to continue. In the BBC’s film, staff are seen colluding to bend the truth in order to get their story straight. When the undercover reporter won’t go along with their revised version of events, they decide that he ‘can’t have seen’ what ‘really’ happened. According to the reporter, G4S are fined whenever they ‘lose control’ at the centre. This leads to the staff to avoid reporting, or manipulate reports so that this doesn’t happen. As a result, there can be little effective oversight, allowing those who commit the abuses a free hand to continue.
A system designed to provide oversight which can be abused and maligned this easily obviously provides no oversight. Those involved in the abuses have a clear incentive to not report. In this scenario, it becomes rational to simply not report; nothing changes, you don’t get fined, and nobody loses their job. In this scenario, nobody is held accountable and the abuses continue.
This problem, however, isn’t just limited to Medway.
In February 2015, not even a year ago, an Ofsted report on the Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre, also run by G4S, found that data regarding the number of fights, assaults, and injuries was ‘inaccurate’, and recommended that ‘the senior leadership team should make every effort to ensure the accuracy of data relating to violence and reduce the number incidents’. A situation which sounds uncomfortably similar to the one observed at Medway. But, as the Panorama film suggested, managers within the centre may have been aware of the bending of the rules. If that is the case, then what incentive does this ‘senior leadership team’ have to change its behaviour? Who is ‘watching the watchers’? Presumably, at a level above G4s, that should be the government department responsible for overseeing the scheme. Following the Rainsbrook report, the Ministry of Justice said ‘urgent action will be taken to tackle the unacceptable failures’ and that ‘the safety and welfare of young people in custody is vital.’ Yet, not even a year later, and history repeats itself. The same company, the same scenarios, and the same system failures.
Early in the BBC film, the reporter undergoes the G4S training programme and explains that they are told that restraint by force is only to be used if ‘absolutely necessary’. Yet, throughout the film, it becomes apparent that officers within the centre use physical restraint for what seem to be relatively minor situations, and in some cases out of personal malice. The use of certain types of holds for restraint by G4S staff has been flagged before. In 2004, 15-year-old Gareth Myatt died at the Rainsbrook centre after being forcibly restrained, which caused him to choke on his own vomit. The coroner’s report into his death recommended an ‘immediate, urgent and complete’ review of ‘all the techniques of physical restraint and control’ in order to their medical safety, stating that such modes of restraint ‘can too readily be used as a “default” system for resolving difficult behavioural problems.’ The question is, have the problems with these modes of restraint been resolved? Concerningly, the evidence might suggest otherwise. Shortly before his death, Gareth Myatt allegedly complained, ‘I can’t breathe!’. In 2010, 46-year-old Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan man being deported from the UK, died on a British Airways flight whilst being restrained by G4S guards. 159 other passengers on the flight reported hearing Mr. Mubenga shouting ‘I can’t breathe!’ before he died. In the BBC’s Panorama secret filming, a young offender, ‘Billy’, is restrained and heard to be shouting desperately ‘I can’t breathe!’ as a custody officer chokes him. In light of this, it is all the more chilling to see a different custody officer, later in the film, re-enacting his earlier restraint of a young offender. ‘I’m suffocating!’ says the officer in a strained and mocking tone, ‘I can’t breathe’.
There’s clearly something deeply wrong when the company responsible the rehabilitation of children has a track record of relying heavily upon physical modes of restraint which prevent the individual from breathing, and an ineffective system of oversight to protect the children in their care.