Here we look at how the authorities missed several opportunities to uncover the scale of abuse at Medomsley Detention Centre.
The centre, near Consett, County Durham, was designed to keep offenders aged 17-21 out of prison, but still introduce them to what a life in prison would be like, and also keep them away from older criminals who could influence them.
The centre was built in 1960 on the site of a Victorian orphanage and opened in 1961. At the time there were around 30 staff members in charge of 75 inmates. One newspaper quoted an attendee at the opening saying “It will provide the usual sort of regime of a detention centre: brisk activity under strict supervision, early morning physical training followed by domestic duties and work”.
Six years after the opening the first allegations of abuse began to surface. In 1967 David Watkins, then recently-elected MP for Consett, raised concerns that a teenager had been repeatedly beaten after the mother of the boy contacted him with the claims.
The 17-year-old spent five weeks in hospital suffering abdominal and groin pain shortly after starting a three-month sentence for assault. He said he was kicked, punched and beaten with a sweeping, as well as various other objects, by staff.
Immediately after the teenager spoke out three more recently released inmates separately came forward. One 17-year-old claimed to have been hit across his bare chest with a studded belt and recounted how other inmates tried to break their limbs and be sent to hospital.
Another former inmate recalled how nearly every new inmate was beaten upon arrival while others were forced to bunny-hop along a corridor. When they collapsed exhausted they were kicked until they continued. One 20-year-old ex inmate claimed to have been punched in the mouth and had seen other boys lifted off the ground by being punched in the stomach. He said the bunny-hop punishments went on into the night.
Mr Watkins contacted the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, with the allegations. Nine days later, the MP received a letter from Home Office minister Lord Stonham saying “careful inquiries had been made” and there was “nothing to substantiate” the claims. It added that the hospital examination of the 17-year-old: “revealed nothing to support the complaint that he had been assaulted”. Mr Watkins, who died in August last year, accepted this.
These allegations came before the arrival of Neville Husband who was in charge of the centre’s kitchens during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The prison officer raped young men on a daily basis before intimidating them to stay silent. He was convicted of rape in 2003 and sentenced to 10 years. However, he died of natural causes seven years later.
In 1977 and 1985 prison inspectors visited the centre but the only criticism in their 1985 report was that the kitchens were in a “deplorable state”.
The authorities also had a chance to uncover the truth in 1982 following the death of two teenage inmates in a matter of months. In September 1981, 18-year-old diabetic Ian Shackleton died after slipping into a coma following a mix-up over access to his insulin. Five months later 17-year-old David Caldwell suffered a severe asthma attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at Shotley Bridge Hospital.
Mr Caldwell, serving a three-month sentence for theft, was allegedly left unsupervised on Medomsley’s medical wing for two hours as he deteriorated. An inquest concluded that he died of natural causes, but also heard allegations he suffered physical abuse by prison staff in the weeks before his death. (Read our article regarding the call from Mr Caldwell’s family for a new investigation into his death here)
The deaths prompted Mr Watkins to call on the Conservative Government to hold a full inquiry into Medomsley. Ministers agreed and it was carried out in February and March 1982, while Husband was still at the centre.
A report, published six weeks later by Home Office minister Lord Belstead, found that allegations of maltreatment made by the family could not be substantiated. Again, Mr Watkins accepted the findings.
Margaret Thatcher’s incoming Government had now introduced the “Short, Sharp, Shock” regime to detention centres, in the belief tough military-style discipline would provide a better deterrent. New inmates at Medomsley would spend the first two weeks of their sentence scrubbing floors and there was a greater emphasis on physical training. In March 1985, the Home Secretary Leon Brittan visited Medomsley and praised the positive impact the new regime was having.
Medomsley eventually closed in 1987 but it would be more than a decade before the scale of abuse that happened there would be uncovered.