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NY and UK: Use of restraint in youth custody

19th July 2010

The New York Times has reported a significant expansion of mental health services for youths in custody and new restrictions on the use of physical restraint, just as the Observer (UK) reports on shocking revelations about a secret 'Physical Control in Care' manual used in private jails for young offenders.

A comparison of the two news reports is revealing. In the New York Times, Nicholas Confessore reports that:

"Four of New York’s most dangerous and troubled youth prisons will be placed under federal oversight, strict new limits will be imposed on the use of physical force by guards, and dozens of psychiatrists, counselors and investigators will be hired under a sweeping agreement between state and federal officials.

"The agreement will usher in the most significant expansion of mental health services in years for youths in custody, the vast majority of whom suffer from drug or alcohol problems, developmental disabilities or mental health problems."

This development follows a federal inquiry which began in 2007 after a number of incidents, including the 2006 death of a 15-year-old following physical restraint.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, Mark Townsend writes in the Observer that the release of the secret prison service manual follows a five-year freedom of information battle, led by the Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE).

The campaign for publication began following the deaths of two 15-year olds in 2004, following physical restraint. In the same year, a 14-year-old hanged himself at a Secure Training Centre; a judge ruled in 2009 that the carers who restrained the boy shortly before his death had used unlawful force.

Until recently, the response of the British government had been to resist publication of the manual:

"Earlier this month the government was prepared to go to a tribunal to fight against the disclosure of the manual, despite the information commissioner ruling that the public interest was so grave the document should be released. The Ministry of Justice backed down and last week released the entire 119-page document. Previously, officials had even refused to give a copy to the parliamentary human rights committee."

So, on the face of it, in New York State the response to the deaths of young people in custody has been to take young offenders institutions under federal control and to improve services for troubled in youths; in England, the response has been to maintain a "culture of obfuscation, secrecy and complacency... in which dangerous, unlawful and ultimately lethal practices continued unchecked," according to Deborah Coles, co-director of the charity Inquest.

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