Hundreds of boys 'tortured' at youth detention centres in 1970s and 1980s

Survivors calling for public inquiry into sexual and physical abuse during Thatcherite 'short, sharp shock' policy

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 04 January 2018 18:53
HMP Kirklevington is among the sites where abuse allegedly took place
HMP Kirklevington is among the sites where abuse allegedly took place

Hundreds of boys say they were subjected to sexual and physical abuse amounting to “torture” in youth detention centres, sparking calls for a public inquiry.

A lawyer representing the alleged victims said they had been raped, beaten and sexually assaulted during the 1970s and 1980s.

David Greenwood, the head of child abuse at Switalskis Solicitors, said he was already representing more than 400 men and being “approached constantly” by new claimants.

“Clients I’ve spoken to have said it was like torture – they were locked up and couldn’t get away,” he told The Independent.

“Most of them say it made them anti-authority, they felt as though they couldn’t trust people.

“For boys in for stealing to be subjected to this indiscriminate violence was a shock, and I say it was unlawful.

“It made boys who had obviously done wrong in some respect into boys who were worse, and ended up in violence.”

Former inmates at Eastwood Park Detention Centre in Gloucestershire have told Mr Greenwood they were punched if they did not answer officers’ responses with “Sir”.

Others described being regularly hit “for the slightest misdemeanour”, being whipped with rubber pipes, forced to perform extreme exercise, have cold showers and were made to crouch in stress positions without chairs.

The abuse came during a policy introduced by the Thatcher government, called ‘short, sharp shock’, for young offenders 

Noel Smith, who was imprisoned in a detention centre aged 15 after stealing a motorbike, said his three-month ordeal in 1976 drove his descent into more serious offences including bank robbery.

The 57-year-old recalled being punched to the floor by one officer while still at court, then smacked on the other side of his head by another, even before being taken to the institution.

“When we arrived we had to run the gauntlet past the screws,” he added. “We were kicked, punched and had our ears pulled. Someone poked their finger in my eye.

“Once we were inside, we were stripped and stood in the reception naked while everybody went about their business around us and staff made disparaging remarks. It frightened the life out of us.”

Mr Smith said there were “beatings from start to finish” of his imprisonment, seeing guards drag inmates out of their chairs by their sideburns and grab them by the scrotum while smiling.

Now an author and commissioning editor of Inside Time, a prisoners’ newspaper, Mr Smith said: “It made me bitter and twisted, it was one humiliation after another.

“It turned us into hardened criminals. I went in for stealing a motorbike, and six months later I was appearing in court for armed robbery and possession of firearms... common sense should have told you then that brutalising kids would have an adverse effect.”

Police are already investigating allegations relating to Medomsley Detention Centre in County Durham and Kirklevington Detention Centre in North Yorkshire, where more than 400 victims have already come forward.

But Mr Greenwood said the scale of abuse is “most definitely wider”.

“It was an institutional problem that seemed to have been taking place at all these detention centres at that time,” he added.

When asked what kind of sexual assaults his clients told him took place in the centres, Mr Greenwood listed them as “rape, indecent assault and oral sex”.

Some of the alleged abuse has been attributed to policies brought in by Margaret Thatcher’s government, including Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw’s ‘short, sharp shock’ initiative.

The policy saw young offenders detained in secure units and subjected to quasi-military discipline, despite the fact there was no evidence it would deter them from reoffending.

“There is a common pattern of random beatings and being put into stress positions as part of the ‘short, sharp shock’ programme between the mid-1970s and 1980s,” Mr Greenwood said.

“The idea was perhaps taken too far, perhaps the training they were given was taken beyond the realm of legality. We need an inquiry to work out who was authorising this type of behaviour.”

Professor David Wilson, a criminologist who was governor of a progressive young offenders’ institution in the 1980s, said detention centres were run to deliberately put inmates under psychological and physical stress.

“That line between putting someone under stress and simply brutalising them seemed to never be clearly enough drawn,” he added.

“The ‘short, sharp shock’ was clearly going to be interpreted by some members of staff in ways that would lead to abuse.”

Victims are calling for a new public inquiry to be opened into the treatment of young male convicts at all detention centres in Britain.

HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) claimed the allegations would be covered by the ongoing Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, but critics argue its remit is not wide enough to fully address the new allegations.

Mr Greenwood argued the current inquiry does not specifically address physical abuse, and its scope is also limited by ongoing criminal proceedings. “We’re hoping that the Home Secretary will look at this again and think about a proper public inquiry,” he added.

A HMPPS spokesperson said: “There is already an inquiry looking into these allegations, which is part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

“The allegations of abuse by former members of staff at Medomsley Detention Centre are subject to an ongoing police investigation, therefore it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

If you experienced abuse in youth detention centres and would like to discuss your experience anonymously, please contact

Additional reporting by PA

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