Joseph Scholes loved Lego. Every Christmas he would ask for the biggest set, the castle or the pirate galleon, and spend the day building. Joseph was one of four children, he belonged to a close family: they ate meals together around the kitchen table, had regular holidays and enjoyed each others’ company.
He was born in Sale, Greater Manchester, on 20 February 1986. His mother told me Joseph was quite a large baby and “very, very beautiful”.
I met Yvonne Bailey at her home in Wales. She told me that Joseph grew into an extremely clever, enquiring child, “interested in everything”. He loved nature and exploring National Trust buildings and museums, he enjoyed pulling things apart and rebuilding them. He was funny. He’d wear his mother’s hat and scarf and do “funny turns” when people came to the house. He loved the arts and music. At school, he was “sunny and popular”.
Joseph loved playing board games with his family — Monopoly and Frustration for instance. He hated losing. His gran, who “totally adored him”, joked that she’d get repetitive strain because they’d have to keep playing until Joseph won.
Yvonne told me that Joseph’s real difficulties started around 1995, when she and his father split up. “Before that, I would’ve viewed Joseph just as a usual boy. . . Perhaps, looking back, there were little things, but a usual boy. Hard work, very physically hard work, but that was the beginning of the end for Joseph. That was the beginning of the end, definitely.”
There was a hostile custody dispute, moving homes and schools. Then, when Joseph was 12, he disclosed sexual abuse by someone outside the immediate family, and social services got involved.
People said Joseph was young for his age: at 14 and 15 he still enjoyed climbing trees, building dens and was afraid of the dark.
His self-harming began in his teenage years – Joseph would do things like push sharp objects into his toes.
Joseph became aggressive towards his mother, stopped eating family meals and had irrational fears; he became scared of insects. He went from being obsessed about cleanliness to refusing to wash.
When he was 15, Joseph jumped from a first floor window in a suspected suicide attempt.
He was violent towards ambulance staff, so police charged him with affray. A psychiatrist who diagnosed him with depressive conduct disorder said his response to the ambulance crew was self-preservation. She warned that Joseph’s self-harming could escalate should he end up in custody.
A few weeks before Christmas 2001 Joseph went missing for about a week. He was found with another child in a deserted caravan on a car park. He was taken into police protection and placed in a children’s home.
Five days after that he had peripheral involvement, with two boys from the home, in street robberies of mobile telephones.
Joseph was psychiatrically assessed a second time and reported to be in a “fragile emotional state”.
The day after appearing in court over the phone robberies, he slashed his face more than 30 times. His bedroom in the children’s home had to be repainted because the walls were splattered with blood.
On 15 March 2002, Joseph appeared in court for sentencing. Besides the psychiatric assessments, a social worker wrote a letter to the court expressing concern about Joseph’s safety given his propensity to self-harm when distressed. The judge ordered custody, and said the authorities must be informed about Joseph’s history of self-harm.
Where might the Youth Justice Board place a child as vulnerable as Joseph?
The healthcare centre at Stoke Heath young offender institution in Shropshire had an appalling reputation. Prisons inspectors had found conditions dire, with “horrendous” numbers of injuries caused through inmate violence. In one eight-month period there were 717 injuries. [PDF here]
Children were routinely kept in their cells for all but one and a half hours a day. Over a ten-day period, some got less than half an hour’s fresh air. One child hadn’t been outside at all. Children ate all of their meals in their cells.
Inspectors said the healthcare centre “failed to a spectacular degree to meet the standards established by the Prisons Board. Thus, a deprived environment for young, sick people was made worse by the complete absence of an area where patients could take outdoor exercise. It is hard to understand how the Prison Service came to build a Health Care Centre that failed to provide facilities, required by Prison Rules, for outdoor exercise.”
Despite Joseph’s known vulnerabilities, and despite these shocking reports on Stoke Heath’s deficiencies, that’s where the Youth Justice Board placed him.
Yvonne Bailey didn’t know what the system knew about Stoke Heath. After staff at the children’s home told her that Joseph was in the healthcare centre, she spoke with a nurse on the telephone. Yvonne told me about that call:
“I was told he was put in a safe cell, so it’s again, it’s this use of language … They should’ve said, ‘Yvonne, he’s in a cell, he’s stripped naked, he’s got a horse blanket-like garment on, fastened with Velcro. It’s filthy and squalid, I mean, the window’s about two or three inches deep in dirt between the pane and the bars and the outer pane. He’s on a concrete plinth with a thin plastic mat’.
“That would’ve been the truth. But instead I was told he would come to no harm, he’s in a safe cell, he’s in safe clothing.”
I asked Yvonne whether prison health staff had asked for information about Joseph, for example, whether he was afraid of the dark.
She said: “No. I gave information. When I rang I tried to explain he was under two hospitals, he’s tried to kill himself, he’s been sexually abused, he’s very vulnerable, we didn’t think he’d be sentenced.”
Yvonne went on: “You’ve got to remember that if I was having a conversation now, I’m clear-headed, I would say this, this, this, I would ask that, that, that . . At that time, you see, everything, every answer they give you as a person with complete naivety, I just believed everything. So I came off the phone and told the girls, ‘He’s in a safe cell, he’s in safe clothing.”’
Nine days after he was admitted to prison, and before Yvonne had made her first visit (it took nearly a week for a visiting order to arrive), Joseph hanged himself from the bars of his cell.
He left a letter for his parents: “I love you mum and dad,” he wrote. “I’m sorry, I just can’t cope. Don’t be sad. It is no one’s fault. I just can’t go on. None of it was any of your fault, sorry. Love you and family, Joe. I tried telling them and they just don’t listen.”
At the inquest, the youth offending team social worker said he’d had “serious concerns” about Joseph and rang the prison to warn about self-harm. Child prisoners have a suicide rate 18 times higher than children sleeping in their own beds, so prisons are probably used to telephone calls like these.
During his first four days in the healthcare centre, Joseph was placed in a garment described some years later by the European Court of Human Rights as a “simple linen tunic, held together by adhesive strips under which he was naked”. “Horse blanket” and “dehumanising” were two of the descriptions given at the inquest. [PDF here]
The author of the child protection report produced after Joseph’s death said that if the healthcare centre had been in a children’s home he would have closed it down. [PDF]
The institution’s medical officer told the inquest Joseph had been “deeply traumatised” by his treatment. Two years earlier, the officer had written to the prisons minister, Paul Boateng, the chief inspector of prisons, David Ramsbotham, and the head of the prison service, Martin Narey, alerting them to unacceptable healthcare standards. [PDF]
Boateng and Narey had ultimate responsibility for the care of imprisoned children.
The coroner presiding over Joseph’s inquest took the highly unusual step of writing to the then home secretary, David Blunkett, asking that a public inquiry be established to consider the appropriateness of the custodial sentence Joseph received, the procedures that were meant to safeguard him once in custody, and the adequacy of secure accommodation to meet the needs of children.
The government refused to follow the coroner’s recommendation.
Joseph’s mother challenged this as far as the European Court of Human Rights, without success.
In December 2012, Yvonne Bailey wrote to the Queen, asking for her support in obtaining a public inquiry. Her letter was passed to the then justice secretary, Chris Grayling. Yvonne is still waiting for his reply.
Like Joseph said: “I tried telling them and they just don’t listen.”
Adam was a lively boy who loved being in the outdoors. He enjoyed camping and rabbiting. On Saturdays he would wash cars and help out at a local garage. He had ambitions to become a police officer, then he planned to set up a garage business; friends said they could help get him started.
I met Adam’s mother, Carol Pounder, at her home in Burnley, Lancashire. She told me that Adam was small for his age, a ‘mummy’s boy’ whose behaviour changed when he was nine. Five family members died within a four-year period and these deaths “played on Adam’s head”, Carol said. He was constantly crying and upset, he would have angry outbursts.
“He wanted to know why people died,” Carol said. “I tried to explain to him why people died, but he just couldn’t understand it.”
Carol sought help from social services and from her family doctor who referred Adam to a psychiatric unit. She was “in and out of school” because of difficulties there.
Eventually, in desperation, when Adam was 12, Carol left him at the social services office to force them to arrange some respite.
The local education authority and social services tussled over who should fund Adam’s residential school placement. He enjoyed his stay at a children’s home in Blackpool, 40 miles away from home, but he became homesick and, after just six days, Carol said, he “ran away and came home to me”.
When he was 14, Adam was arrested twice, once for having a penknife and another time for possessing cannabis. During a difficult two-year period he was admitted to hospital seven times following overdoses of alcohol and drugs.
Then he was charged with wounding a man and was subject to a court-ordered secure remand.
A place in a locked establishment was not immediately available so Adam spent a short period in a local (privately-run) children’s home where he settled well.
Then staff told Adam he was going to be moved to Hassockfield — a secure training centre run by the private company Serco near Consett in County Durham. The distance from Adam’s home was around 150 miles.
Hassockfield was built on the site that once housed Medomsley detention centre, where more than 1,100 former child inmates now allege they were sexually and physically abused by prison guards.
Adam panicked and ran home. He was arrested, held in the cells at Burnley police station and escorted by police officers to Hassockfield. They arrived at the prison after midnight on 10 July 2004. Adam was assessed as ‘high risk’ and monitored every five minutes.
Two days later one of the principal witnesses to the alleged wounding retracted his police statement. That should have given Adam’s lawyer the grounds she needed to appeal for bail.
Moreover, Adam told police and a member of staff at Hassockfield that he had stabbed the man because he sexually abused him (“touched him up”). [PDF]
In a therapeutic setting, such information would be seen as significant, potentially offering further clues to Adam’s self-destructive behaviour. It would reinforce the necessity of providing a safe, caring environment. But Hassockfield was not a therapeutic environment and these two separate disclosures were not recorded in Adam’s risk profile.
Five days after Adam was taken to Hassockfield, Carol was allowed to speak with him on the telephone. Three days after that she attended a meeting there. Carol told me:
“Adam was sat there, he were crying his eyes out. He had snot dripping off his face, he were shaking. He didn’t even hardly speak throughout the meeting. His hand was all swollen and bandaged up so I asked what he’d done. Adam wouldn’t even tell me. They’d said he’d punched a wall.”
After the meeting Adam and Carol had some private time. He told her he “would do himself in” if he was not moved. Carol passed that on to a female staff member: “Her words to me were, ‘We’ve never had a death here yet, and we’re not about to have one.’”
Close monitoring continued. A transfer request was made. Carol told me this did not highlight Adam’s vulnerabilities, his self-harming, poor mental health state or the prohibitive distance from home.
In his last letter home, Adam wrote: “I need to be at home with you. I need to be at home in my own bed or my head will crack up. I will probably try to kill myself and I will probably succeed this time. I can’t stay in here.”
He wrote another letter addressed “Dear Judge”. That letter, pleading for bail, is paraphrased here by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman:
“… he said he had learned his lesson and intended to stay out of trouble in the future. He said that, if he was granted bail, he knew he had ‘to stick to it and I will for definite’ because a friend had offered him a job. He said he had stopped smoking and would not smoke cannabis again. He said he wanted to change his life and start again. He asked the Judge to take into account how he was feeling about things and said he was ‘really upset and distressed’. He asked for the chance to prove that what he was saying was true.” [PDF]
On 7 August 2004, Adam was visited by family members. Officers observed someone passing Adam cigarettes and matches. Instead of intervening, they elected to ‘discover’ the items in a search after Adam’s family had left the prison. He was placed on the lowest level of the punishment and rewards scheme and his television was removed from his cell.
That evening Adam learned that, because of the contraband, he was not allowed to earn any points for the day. He got angry, threw a plastic cup at a table which bounced and hit an officer on the arm before landing on the floor.
Adam immediately apologised and went to his cell. Nevertheless, he was locked in for around 20 minutes as punishment.
So, in about seven hours this 14-year-old child had accrued three separate punishments: relegation to the institution’s lowest privilege level, which included the removal of his television; not being able to accrue any points, and ‘time out’. All because he’d accepted seven matches and two cigarettes from a family visitor.
The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman observed: “There can be little doubt of the effect this affair had on the boy – evidenced by the cup-throwing incident. He felt it was unfair (given that it was his family who brought in the cigarettes) and he would have felt the loss of points and privileges (and especially the loss of his television and CD at the weekend) keenly.”
The Ombudsman said Adam “had quickly achieved Championship status and would have been proud of that (he said on one occasion on receiving ten points for the day that he was ‘King of the world’)”. [PDF]
The following day, a Sunday, Adam and another child were in the association area of their unit. A child with special educational needs was on ‘time out’ and passed a note to Adam to give to another child. A female officer instructed Adam to hand over the note, which he did. She did not approve of what was written in the note and ordered Adam into his cell.
Adam asked what he had done wrong a couple of times. The officer tried to drag him into his cell. Adam pulled away and went to sit down at one of the unit’s fixed table and benches. Then, the officer activated the ‘first response’ restraint procedure.
Four officers came running into the unit. One of them later conceded that they found Adam quite calm and trying to defuse the situation. Still, the officers grabbed hold of Adam and carried him, face down, into his cell.
Adam struggled. An officer swiped his nose. (The official euphemism for that is ‘nose distraction’).
Hours later, Adam was found hanging in his cell. He was 14 years old.
Every day until three days before his death Adam had rung his solicitor about his bail application. He had packed a bag in preparation for a transfer back to the children’s home, which he had given to officers to safely store in the office.
The night he died Adam had asked for his bag back. Some days after his death a letter was found in the side pocket. The letter to his family began “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!”. Adam promised to look after his deceased grandparents, and asked to be buried with his grandfather.
At Adam’s inquest, held in Chester-le-Street in Durham in 2007, Carol Pounder watched CCTV footage of her son’s final restraint.
“Basically, they beat him up,” she told me, “and they took him to his cell and left him. They beat Adam up in the association area. They carried him like a dead animal, face down. And what they said was the reason why they carried him face down was because his nose was bleeding so badly they didn’t want him to choke to death on his blood. That’s exactly what they said.”
She described more of the footage: “They throw Adam in his cell like a dog, and then they go and jump on him again….The way they were carrying my son, I actually thought he was dead. And he was in his socks. He didn’t even have shoes on his feet.”
Carol said: “And then they threw Adam in the cell, and then they all jumped on him again … I think the lightest one was 13-and-a-half stone, and you see him pushing on to the top of Adam, and you could tell they get a kick out of it. I mean, if we’d done that to a kid, well…. Then they all came running out that room, out of the cell…. When they came running out you can actually see the smirks on their faces.”
Besides the letter for his family, Adam left a statement for his solicitor:
“When the other staff came they all jumped on me and started to put my arms up my back and hitting me in the nose,” he wrote. “I then tried to bite one of the staff because they were really hurting my nose. My nose started bleeding and swelled up and it didn’t stop bleeding for about one hour and afterwards it was really sore.”
Adam’s note continues: “When I calmed down I asked them why they hit me in the nose and jumped on me. They said it was because I wouldn’t go in my room so I said what gives them the right to hit a 14-year-old child in the nose and they said it was restraint.” [PDF]
What did give them the right to hit a 14-year-old child in the nose?
Carol Pounder had to go to the High Court to get an honest answer to her son’s question.
“There was no right to hurt such a child in these circumstances,” said Mr Justice Blake.
Wider admissions of abusive treatment came only with the second inquest, which concluded in January 2011.
All parties to the inquest, including the commercial contractor Serco and the Youth Justice Board, agreed that the removal of Adam to his cell had been unlawful, the use of restraint to move Adam to his cell was unlawful, the use of the ‘nose distraction’ on Adam was unlawful, and that restraint “was regularly used” unlawfully at Hassockfield before and at the time of Adam’s death.
The inquest jury found that Hassockfield was running an unlawful regime and that the Youth Justice Board’s failure to prevent Serco’s regular and unlawful use of restraint at Hassockfield constituted “serious system failure”.
The jury agreed that several factors had contributed to Adam taking his own life: being 150 miles from home, the news that a bail application was not being pursued, the unlawful use of restraint, the unlawful use of the nose distraction, and his intrinsic vulnerability.
Carol Pounder’s legal team wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions asking him to institute proceedings against the four individuals who had unlawfully restrained Adam, and the director of the Serco prison, Trevor Wilson-Smith. At the end of April 2013, the Crown Prosecution Service notified Carol’s lawyers that no prosecutions would be brought as, principally, a court would be likely to find that the suspects had a genuine and reasonable belief that the methods in which they had been trained to restrain children were lawful.
I asked Carol’s barrister, Richard Hermer QC, what impact the case had on him personally. He said:
“Obviously, on a human level, Adam’s story was just deeply tragic. This small child, who was clearly bright, able and insightful, met a tragic death alone in a cell.”
Hermer went on: “As a lawyer, the thing that stays with me about that case is what we discovered — namely, a detention system in which for years those responsible for the care and welfare of children were breaking the law and assaulting the children with impunity.”
Hermer was troubled by the Youth Justice Board’s response to the ruling that the system was unlawful. At the first inquest the YJB had contended that this evidence should be withheld from the jury. Thereafter the Youth Justice Board and the government tried to change the law so that the unlawful restraints would become lawful.
He said they did this “without, it seemed, any consideration as to the impact it would have on children, let alone any attempt to seek to learn lessons from what had just been discovered about unlawful practices in institutions for which they were responsible. As a lawyer, I found that a remarkably shoddy response from government”.
As for the response from Serco, the private company running Hassockfield, Hermer said that was “even worse”. Why? Because Serco “actually sought to argue that the restraints were lawful”.
Hermer said: “These were arguments that were rightly treated with some contempt by the High Court and Court of Appeal. How much better it would have been if the response of both government and Serco had been not to seek to justify the unjustifiable but to say, ‘Look, we have really messed up. What lessons can we learn? How can we make sure that this isn’t done again?’”
“What does it tell us about the way that we treat children?”
This is the second edited extract from Children Behind Bars: why the abuse of child imprisonment must end. Detailed references can be found in the book. See also part one: Prison, a treacherous place for a child. Our series concludes tomorrow: The sex abusers guarding Britain’s most vulnerable children.
Author: Carolyne Willow
Carolyne Willow, a former child protection social worker and longstanding children’s rights campaigner, is Director of a new charity, Article 39, which fights for the rights of children living in institutional settings. Her book, Children Behind Bars, is published by Policy Press