‘Short, sharp shock’ ruined my life: Abuse victims describe brutal reality of youth detention centres under Thatcher

Lizzie Dearden
‘What happened was an absolute disgrace and tragic for many,’ says one former detainee. ‘I feel that they simply ripped out my spirit and turned me into an anti-authoritarian criminal’: Getty

Margaret Thatcher’s government rode into office on the back of a manifesto that promised to fight crime by giving young offenders a “short, sharp shock” at detention centres.

Ministers claimed army-style discipline would deter youngsters from a life of crime, but the boys who lived through the brutal regime the policy inspired through the late 1970s and 1980s tell a very different story.

It is one of beatings, humiliation and sexual assault at “sadistic, brutal concentration camps”, with some teenagers driven to suicide and others saying the trauma sparked a worsening cycle of violence and addiction.

“We were physically abused on a daily basis, it was a time when I believed they would kill me,” said Keith, who was imprisoned at the age of 14.

Dozens of victims are calling for a public inquiry into the abuse as police investigate allegations relating to Medomsley Detention Centre in County Durham and Kirklevington Detention Centre in North Yorkshire, where over 400 victims have already come forward.

But the scale of the abuse is far wider according to men who have told The Independent of their treatment at centres as far apart as Kent, Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire.

James Carré-Rice said he “spiralled into violence” after being held at Whatton Detention Centre in Nottinghamshire and went on to serve three more sentences.

“When I got to reception one of the officers came out and asked me my name, he seemed quite friendly,” he said.

“I said it was Jimmy and he punched me in the face and said: ‘You have to call me Sir’.

“It was terrifying for everybody. They were grown men, they didn’t like us.

Margaret Thatcher’s government brought in the short, sharp shock regime in the belief it would reduce reoffending (Getty)

“We weren’t doing anything wrong but every one of us was beaten, punished, humiliated.”

Mr Carré-Rice, who has since written books based on his experiences, said the abuse appeared to be “random”.

He was 15 at the time and described other children in the centre crying at night, adding: “The way they were treated was out of all proportion to what they had done wrong and it sent them the wrong way.

“I can remember them drumming into your head that you were scum, you were worthless, you were useless, a failure to society. It’s difficult to shake those labels off.”

One of Mr Carré-Rice’s school friends was imprisoned during the same centre, being severely beaten by officers who caught him dancing in a corridor. Within a month of his release, the boy hung himself.

He said the idea of disciplining teenagers using violence like the “short, sharp shock” would never work, adding: “If you have a system like that, you’re reinforcing cycles of behaviour that you’ll never get out of… no one thought it through.

“I think the staff thought they were doing their duty for king and country but there were no parameters or system of control.”

Mr Carré-Rice’s friend was not the only inmate to die after leaving a Thatcherite detention centre.

Paul, who did not want his second name mentioned, saw his brother become addicted to heroin and die of an overdose after he emerged “broken” from a centre in Kent.

Mark was wrongfully convicted for attacking a man with a bottle, despite the real culprit confessing to police, and then “punished” for attempting an appeal, his brother said.

“He told me of having to stand naked for over 24 hours in a place where staff and others were passing,” the 64-year-old added.

“He said he had cold water thrown over him and they were always beaten up.”

In a pattern described by victims across the country, officers would hit Mark if he addressed them without calling them “sir”.

His brother believes he was sexually abused, with him referring to some abuse as “too bad to talk about”.

“They had the impression this was authorised by Maggie Thatcher, as if they were on direct orders from the Prime Minister to carry out this abuse,” Paul added. “He hadn’t done anything wrong. It just broke him, it broke his spirit.”

Mark attempted to return to work as a carpenter when he was released after four months but quickly developed a heroin habit and died at the age of 23.

Boys imprisoned at Kirklevington Detention Centre compared the regime to a “sadistic, brutal concentration camp”.

Keith arrived there at the age of 14 with his brother and said he suffered violent physical abuse from the moment he passed through the gates.

He and another boy attempted to escape the centre but were caught, being “beaten and dragged down the corridors” before being put in solitary confinement.

HMP Kirklevington (Google Street View)

“We were physically abused on a daily basis, it was a time when I believed they would kill me,” said Keith.

“The staff in this place were just sadistic and seemed to enjoy abusing young boys… we were all made to deliberately go hungry and purposely served small portions of food, all letters to family were censored and dictated in the dining hall.”

Far from “deterring criminals” – the Tory government’s stated aim – Keith said the experience left him with a lifelong hatred for authority, adding: “I always saw them as the enemy. I went on to spend most of my life in and out of prisons.”

He ended his last sentence 18 years ago and now has a stable life running his own business, but believes that his path would have been different if he had not been abused.

“I felt that if I was treated humanely then perhaps I would have had a much better chance,” he added.

“What happened in Kirklevington was an absolute disgrace and tragic for many. I feel that they simply ripped out my spirit and turned me into an anti-authoritarian criminal.”

Lee, who was incarcerated at Eastwood Park, Gloucestershire, in 1986, said the “horrific” experience has contributed to life-long mental illness.

“There is no doubt that after over 30 years of being held there, the emotional scars are still there from my experience and will stay with me forever,” he said.

Lee, now 47, said he and the two other boys he arrived with were made to strip naked by two guards sitting behind a desk.

“We were made to stand there for what felt like hours while they just stared at us and hurled verbal abuse,” he recalled.

“For the whole time I was there, it was waves and waves of verbal and physical abuse.

“If I wasn’t been sworn at for no reason at all, I was either pushed, punched or kicked, this could have been for something as simple as not having my sleeves rolled up properly or what was perceived to be uncombed hair.

William Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s Home Secretary, became known for implementing the ‘short, sharp shock’ policy (Hulton Archive)

“Throughout the nights there would be constant banging noises or guards in fine vocal form over the PA system and even kicking cell doors loudly, anything to keep waking us up and generally having broken sleep.”

Lee said the teenagers were woken up at 5am every morning, with “uncomfortable and intimidating” guards watching them shower.

David Greenwood, the head of child abuse at Switalskis Solicitors, is representing dozens of claimants who suffered in youth detention centres.

He said there was a “very definite link” between the abuse and the Thatcherite short, sharp shock policy.

“These guards were given the green light to assault detainees and there were no questions asked,” he said.

“When boys did make complaints when they were released, they were ignored.”

Mr Greenwood said that although he has been contacted by some men who did not reoffend after being released, they were in the minority.

“Most were in for misdemeanours like theft or receiving stolen goods – things you would never send people to youth detention centre for nowadays,” he added.

“The majority have their lives sent down the other path with this kind of treatment, especially with sexual abuse as well.”

HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) said the allegations would be covered by the ongoing Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

A HMPPS spokesperson said: “There is already an onquiry looking into these allegations, which is part of the IICSA.

“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.”

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes