The future of the left since 1884

The uses of euphemism

Gareth Myatt died while being forcibly restrained by three prison officers at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre near Rugby.  He died because, although he complained he couldn’t breathe, officers kept his body restricted in a hold called the ‘Seated Double Embrace’. ...


Gareth Myatt died while being forcibly restrained by three prison officers at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre near Rugby.  He died because, although he complained he couldn’t breathe, officers kept his body restricted in a hold called the ‘Seated Double Embrace’.  They bent him double from the waist and secured his head, resulting in his ingesting vomit and dying of asphyxiation.  He was 4 foot 10, seven stone and 15 years old.

Gareth died in April 2004.  Trying to understand how this could have happened has been, in the most pressing sense, at the heart of investigations I’ve conducted since 2007, when I became involved in his case as leading counsel for his mother Pam at the inquest into his death.  Prompted by the alarming picture that emerged before the coroner, I subsequently conducted research into child restraint at Cambridge University.  Along with my colleague, Dr Caroline Lanskey of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, I will publish the research findings next year.

I should make one thing clear from the outset: every criminal justice system that incarcerates children must consider how to control and contain them should they become volatile.  To protect others; to protect the child.  That much is uncontroversial.  Both inside and outside of custody children lose their temper.  Further, as a prison officer told me: being hit by a young person can still hurt.  That must be obvious to all.  Therefore the real issue at stake is what kind of force the state should authorise for use on the young incarcerated person.  There are different methods of control, of which pain-infliction is but one.  The question is whether it is the best one.

Any deliberate infliction of pain on a child violates deep-seated drives within us. Therefore in the available space I want to outline just one of the mechanisms we found that lowered the moral resistances against hurting children.  It is one that perhaps you may find surprising, even small.  Yet in respect of what actually happens to detained children it is ever-present, and obscures almost everything of importance in how they are treated.  It is the use of euphemism.


The UK’s use of pain on incarcerated children has been subject to persistent domestic and international criticism, including condemnation from the UN Commission for Human Rights and the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner.  Indeed, the NSPCC stated that ‘cruel and degrading violence’ was being inflicted upon children, resulting in ‘broken arms, noses, wrists and fingers’.

Following highly critical inquest jury verdicts after the deaths of both Gareth Myatt and another child Adam Rickwood (14 when he died), a restraint review was commissioned by the Government. The resulting report, broadly accepted by Government, controversially recommended the extension of a technique called ‘wrist flexion’ to Secure Training Centres, where some of the most vulnerable young people are detained.  Thus it comes that wrist flexion is part of Managing and Minimising Physical Restraint (MMPR), the new system being rolled out across the juvenile secure estate.

These developments have been severely criticised in differing ways.  Several childcare professionals at the Carlile Inquiry sessions in the House of Lords in 2011 expressed concerns about the continued reliance on pain, as did the Office of the Children’s Commissioner subsequently. Moreover, the High Court stated that the approach of the authors as to when restraint could be justified was ‘very much mistaken’ if they believed that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was irrelevant.

So what does wrist ‘flexion’ actually mean?  Prison officers are authorised to exert pressure on children’s joints.  Pressure means pain.  It is always necessary to spell this out.  Indeed the revelation in a recent report of a young person at Hindley Young Offenders Institution (near Wigan) suffering a broken bone following restraint serves as a sobering reminder.  However, the fact is the use of sanitised language dangerously inures us from the human truth of what is happening. Take Adam Rickwood’s case.

Euphemistically: a ‘trainee’ in a Secure Training Centre had ‘nose distraction’ applied as part of the behaviour management system ‘PCC’ – Physical Control in Care.  (Note: in ‘care’.)

Unembroidered: a prison officer hit a child in prison with a sharp blow under the nostrils while keeping the child’s head in place, something that caused extensive bleeding and contributed to the child killing himself by hanging.

Shortly before Adam Rickwood took that fateful final step, he wrote:

My nose started bleeding and swelled up it didn’t stop bleeding for about one hour and afterwards it was swelled badly and really sore and hurting me a lot … so I said what gives them the right to hit a 14 year old child in the nose and draw blood and they said it was a restraint.

Shorn of euphemism, this is closer to how a restrained child feels. In our research we came across many similarly distressing accounts.  Children who were bewildered, humiliated, accepting, resigned, ashamed or – perhaps most worryingly – so desensitised that they just didn’t care if they were hurt anymore.  It’s not just the physical harm restraint causes.

Sociologist Stanley Cohen wrote of our use of ‘special vocabularies’, words we deploy to deal with social suffering, to inoculate us against the everyday atrocities we witness around us.  Deborah Coles is co-director of INQUEST, the charity that supported Gareth Myatt’s mother throughout the coronial proceedings and whose lobbying was instrumental in raising awareness of the risks restraint presents to detained children.  As she explains, ‘This euphemistic use of language simply masks the truth of what they’re doing to vulnerable children.  Which is hurting them.  And subjecting them to fear and violence.’


The amount of pain we inflict on detained children is not just a technical question.  It’s a moral one.  We must see through the lattice of half-lies and euphemisms to get at the essential questions: what are such children worth? what kind of treatment do they deserve – what if it were our child?

We must never forget that we don’t have to do it this way.  One hopes that MMPR will reduce the injuries to children.  But then there were high hopes for PCC, the ‘safer’ system that ultimately killed Gareth Myatt.  And all of this must be seen in the context of the latest annual statistics, which show an increase of 17 percent in restraint incidents to 8419 uses of force on children.

There is an infernal calculus at one end of which sits cruelty and callousness and at the other compassion and care.  It is no excuse, if we choose pain-inducing solutions, to argue that these are difficult questions.  They are.  But that does not relieve us of the duty imposed by the UN Convention to adopt policies that treat children in a way that is consistent with their dignity and worth, and which reinforces rather than violates their human rights.

Ultimately, pain-inducing restraint disfigures the lives of many of the children it’s inflicted upon.  It also dents the moral claims of the society that authorises it.

Fabian membership

Join the Fabian Society today and help shape the future of the left

You’ll receive the quarterly Fabian Review and at least four reports or pamphlets each year sent to your door

Be a part of the debate at Fabian conferences and events and join one of our network of local Fabian societies

Join the Fabian Society
Fabian Society

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.