In the evening of 8 August, 2004, a 14-year-old boy was ordered to his room after, allegedly, giving cheek to an adult. He refused to obey and physical force was used against him. The truth about the terrible consequences of this most ordinary example of childish non-compliance finally emerged yesterday, when an inquest jury in Easington, Co Durham, found that Adam Rickwood, the youngest child to die in custody in modern times, had been treated unlawfully by staff at Hassockfield Secure Training Centre (STC) in the same county, before he ended his young life at the end of a makeshift noose.
For Adam’s family, this week’s verdict marked the end of a long and painful search for justice. The jury in the first inquest into Adam’s death, in 2007, were not allowed to consider whether the force used on the boy was lawful. That ban, imposed by the coroner, was wrong – STC rules, drawn up by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) clearly stated that restraint, for non-compliance, should not be used on the children in their care. But the staff concerned went further than restraint: they applied a “nose distraction” technique to the boy – in plain speaking, a sharp blow to his nose. Adam was incensed and wrote in his suicide note “What right have they got to hit a child?”Order now
It took three judicial reviews, brought by Rickwood’s mother, Carol Pounder, challenging that flawed inquest, before a high court judge ruled the verdict unlawful and ordered a second examination of the circumstances of his death. The use of nose distraction technique – and restraint for non-compliance – is now banned in STCs. Shamefully, that is no thanks to those charged with the care of young children who take a wrong turn in life. Following Rickwood’s death – and that of 16-year-old Gareth Myatt, who died while being restrained in another STC in the same year – the Ministry of Justice, backed by the Youth Justice Board, tried to bring the use of restraint for non-compliance, along with other painful methods into STC rules. In July 2008 they were foiled by the court of appeal, which ruled that such methods were an infringement of young people’s fundamental human rights.
During this second inquest, some members of the jury openly wept when they heard of the treatment imposed on a troubled young boy with a history of self-harming, incarcerated some 150 miles away from his home and family. In 2004, I was present at another inquest, when another jury shed tears on hearing how 16-year-old Joseph Scholes had taken his life in a Young Offenders Institution. Thirty children have met their deaths in custody since 1990 – how many more must die before the state, which is acting in loco parentis, decides there must be a better way of dealing with damaged children?
The portents offer little hope of change. Last October, it was revealed that 21 children had sustained injuries while being restrained at Hassockfield in the previous year and that restraint was used 543 times in 2008 and 2009 at the privately run centre. And only a few days ago, following a freedom of information request, the charity Children and Young People Now reported that almost a third of custodial staff working with young offenders had not completed training on safeguarding, and assessing the vulnerability of, those in their charge.
Deborah Coles, the co-director of Inquest, which supported Adam Rickwood’s family throughout their campaign, believes that only a public inquiry into the way we treat children who break the law will bring about change. She says the whole population should hear the evidence that made juries into deaths in custody weep. I endorse her view on a highly personal level. For I was the same age as Adam when I first went into custody, more than half a century ago – and I weep now when I think how rich my life has been since then, and despair that we allow such damaged children to suffer the kind of treatment to which we would not dream of subjecting our own children.
Mum’s fight for justice over Burnley boy, 14, who became youngest to die in custody by Andy Chapman, Sunday Mirror 30/01/2011 Adam Rickwood always wanted to be a policeman. Aged 12 he dressed up as one for a youth group play, proudly wearing a sergeant’s hat with its distinctive chequered band and a crisp white shirt with a black tie. Yet Adam never grew up to realise his dream. Only two years later he was dead in a cell while in the care of people supposed to be looking after him.
Just 14 and held in a secure unit for young offenders, Adam became the youngest person to die in custody in Britain – a victim of the very system he hoped would give him a career. Alone in his stark cell, a three-and-a-half hour journey from his home and family, Adam hanged himself with his shoelaces only a few hours after he was given a bloody nose by a warder with a karate-style blow. It is now illegal as a method of restraint and even then was against the rules of the unit holding him. On Thursday an inquest ruled that “unlawful force” by warders directly contributed to Adam’s suicide. The verdict is the climax of a six-year battle for justice by his mother Carol Pounder on behalf of her angel-faced boy who died in August 2004.
Yesterday she told in an emotional interview how she aims to fight on and bring the warders to court on assault charges. “I feel a bit nearer to getting justice for Adam and I can sleep a little sounder now,” she said. “But I will not give up my fight.” Carol, 42, a mother of four from Burnley, Lancs, who has suffered years of depression since Adam died, told how the tragedy began in June 2004 when her son was arrested after a youth of 19 was injured with a knife in a mass street brawl. Adam was accused of wounding the youth. But the victim later insisted he had made a mistake after initially naming Adam as his attacker. Even so, the case ground on through the legal system. Carol said: “Adam had always been a delightful lad, very bright at school and doing well.”
His father and Carol split before he was born. Adam was brought up by his stepfather John, who married Carol when Adam was three months old. He had a happy home life with his mum, John and sisters Sharon, Sarah and Laura. “He made me birthday and mother’s day cards, he was a loving son, polite and well mannered. But when he was 10 and 11 both John’s parents died, then my dad died, and he got in with the wrong crowd. He started smoking cannabis at 13. He acted strangely, saying he could hear voices in his head and punching the walls. But he was never violent to his family.
“He needed help. He had psychological issues. He did stupid things, getting caught with cannabis, burglary, hanging around with older lads, going in stolen cars. He wasn’t an angel.” Vulnerable Adam felt so low he began to self-harm too. “But the old Adam still shone through. He’d help old ladies off the bus and carry their shopping.” Of that fateful night in 2004, Carol says: “Adam was arrested and accused of having a knife. But he swore it wasn’t him. Later, the stabbed lad came to my door to say ‘It wasn’t Adam.’ He was sure.” Because Adam had been in trouble before, he was remanded in custody to await trial. On July 10 he was sent to privately-run Hassockfield Secure Training Centre (STC) in Durham, 150 miles away, because there were no secure places nearby. STCs were the brainchild of Tory former Home Secretary Michael Howard – a cheaper, supposedly more professional alternative to secure council children’s homes.
Carol said: “I was mortified. It was three-and-a-half hours away and I could only see him for two hours a week. Grown men on remand get visits daily, yet a kiddie couldn’t see his mum. He was desperately unhappy.” Carol told how Adam pleaded to be moved nearer home. “He hated it there. He said some warders were kind, the others were bastards who beat kids up, always away from the CCTV.” The last time she spoke to him was on a Sunday. He had taken part in a sports day and was in good spirits. “They’d had sack races and egg and spoon. He’d enjoyed himself.”
But that night Adam had an argument with a female warder. He wouldn’t go back to his cell, and four officers restrained him. One, named at the inquest as Steve Hodgson, used a “nose distraction technique” to subdue him. This was a painful blow in which two fingers are put under the nostrils then used to twist the nose. It has now been outlawed in the UK by the High Court. But even then Hassockfield’s written rules said it was only to be used if an inmate was escaping or causing harm to others.
Adam was carried back to his cell by his arms and legs and left face-down with blood on his face. Carol said: “He rang his solicitor and said he’d been ‘beaten up by the screws’. She rang me and I was horrified.” At 3.30am on Monday morning, Carol answered a knock on the door. Two policemen were on her doorstep “They told me Adam had committed suicide. I told them ‘it’s because the warders beat him up. What are you going to do about that?”
At a first inquest in 2007 the jury was not asked to consider the legality of the nasal distraction technique. Carol won a new hearing and on Thursday a new jury took just an hour to rule unanimously in a narrative verdict that Adam had been the victim of “unlawful force”. The jury criticised a host of other failings in his care but ruled that warders believed at the time they were acting lawfully, though all sides now accept with hindsight that his treatment was illegal.