'Child jails' face court test

Crime/ detention fears
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PRISON campaigners have begun legal proceedings to stop the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, opening the first secure training centres, or "child jails" for persistent offenders as young as 12 years old.

The Howard League for Penal Reform is seeking a judicial review of the plan to build new detention centres on the grounds that the rules for the new regime contravene child care regulations in the 1989 Children Act.

The League, whose president is the playwright and barrister John Mortimer, is particularly concerned that barely trained security guards would look after children in the new centres. It fears that prison staff would train security guards in physical restraint techniques normally used on adults.

Five secure training centres have been planned by the Home Office to provide a tough regime of training and education. But the Howard League says it has serious concerns that draft rules for the centres, which will be built and run by private consortiums, flout the Children Act by failing to recognise that those aged 12 are still children and their care is paramount.

Michael Grewcock, the League's researcher in juvenile justice matters, said campaigners became alarmed about the new regime after studying recently published rules for the management of the centres.

"We were concerned that the rights of the child were absent from the documents," he said.

Should the Howard League succeed in its judicial review, the

guidelines could well have to be redrafted to include advice on child care from the Children Act.

Secure training centres form part of the Home Secretary's latest attempt to get tough on crime, encapsulated in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. One of the most contentious sections of the Act, which peers in the House of Lords tried and failed to amend, is the new Secure Training Order for persistent offenders aged 12 to 14.

Mr Howard has claimed that "the public is sick and tired of youngsters committing crime after crime and seeing the courts powerless to lock them up".

Secure Training Orders will last between six months and two years, with half the time spent in a secure training centre and the rest under close supervision in the community.

Before being "sentenced" to a period in a centre, a young offender must be convicted of at least three offences punishable by imprisonment and to have committed an offence while subject to a supervision order, or failed to comply with one.

Planning permission has so far been granted for two centres, at Cookham Wood near Rochester in Kent, and Gringley, Nottinghamshire, and nine companies were invited to submit tenders for construction and management of them. The consortia include such leading construction companies as Taylor Woodrow and Tarmac, partnered by specialist prison and care companies. These include Premier Prisons, a consortium formed between Wackenhut, a Florida-based private security corporation, and Serco, a services company which runs Doncaster Prison, beset by several suicides last year. Another US company, Correction Corporation, is also bidding to run the Secure Training Centres.

Planning permission for centres at Onley, Northamptonshire, Medomsley, County Durham, and Kidlington, near Oxford, has been refused after opposition from local residents.

Yesterday the Home Office said the Howard League's move was "premature".

"Not a brick has been put up yet. The centres will be run by private companies, but there will be very specific requirements about how they will be run," a Home Office spokesman said. "The consortia bidding have experience of working with young people."