Detention Deficit Disorder
by Bill Hartley
In 2016, I wrote an article about detention centres. This was prompted by Operation Seabrook, Durham Constabulary’s investigation into allegations of abuse at Medomsley, the former detention centre in County Durham which closed in 1988. Seabrook grew to be the country’s largest investigation into sexual abuse. The story began back in 2003 when a man called Neville Husband who once ran the kitchen at Medomsley was convicted of serious sexual assaults of teenage detainees. It is claimed that some staff at Medomsley were aware of his activities but failed to report this believing that he enjoyed the support of senior management. He might have been stopped sooner; a former detainee tried to complain to Durham police but was sent packing. Husband received a long prison sentence and has since died. Seabrook illustrates how the police moved from a point where the authorities ignored allegations of abuse to a situation where any such complaint is assumed to be true and they are dealing with a ‘victim’.
Detention centres were tough places, dedicated to the ‘short sharp shock’ approach. Politicians were active in encouraging this. The theory was that a brisk activity based regime would deter young people from crime, since they wouldn’t wish to come back for a second helping. To run this kind of regime required strong and visible leadership to make sure that firmness didn’t spill over into what we now describe as abuse. Unfortunately DCs, to use the Prison Service term, were something of a backwater, often a place to post individuals who were close to retirement. Ambitious governors didn’t want to go to such places. Medomsley appears to have been a good example of an institution which didn’t get the leadership it deserved. Given its size (holding around 70 detainees), a reasonably energetic person could easily see every detainee and member of staff in the course of a typical week. Many governors of larger institutions used this high visibility approach, since in those days there were fewer demands on their time. Suffice to say for the present that the Medomsley regime at times went beyond robust. This is always the danger; the bully will prosper when there is little risk of getting caught.
Penal institutions are difficult places for outsiders to penetrate, much less investigate. They have their own terminology, customs and hierarchies and Medomsley had been closed for a long time before the police became involved. They would have had no understanding of a regime which disappeared back in the eighties. At one point the Operation Seabrook website was excitedly reporting the existence of an organised paedophile ring at Medomsley; something which was quietly dropped later. Judging by the public pronouncements the whole tone seems to have been less of a forensic examination of the facts and more an acceptance of everything they were told. More than 1600 witnesses came forward with allegations (the total varies). It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Seabrook team that this was an extraordinary number. A constabulary which had previously rejected the word of a single complainant was now absorbing a deluge of allegations. This acceptance of everything they were being told predictably hit the buffers of a Crown Prosecution Service evidence test.
Medomsley was a closed world but plenty of people would have got in there, for example a medical officer, chaplain and notably the Board of Visitors; members of the public were allowed to visit all parts of the institution whenever they wished and were required to report annually to the Secretary of State. The approach of treating everyone as victims meant that the logistics of the operation grew enormously. At one point there were seventy detectives working on the case, with a local MP receiving an assurance from the then prime minster David Cameron that Durham Constabulary would receive support. Gradually the investigation began to narrow down the number of suspects to eleven. Eventually five men, all long retired, were charged and appeared at Teesside Crown Court. Reporting restrictions were lifted early in March following their conviction. None of the defendants were found guilty of sexual offences. There was one conviction for grievous bodily harm and one for actual bodily harm. All five defendants were also convicted of that catch all offence Misconduct in a Public Office i.e. failing to report something. In short, Seabrook has yielded two convictions for serious offences and found no sexual misconduct. On a cost benefit basis this has been a huge waste of money.
On Tuesday 12thMarch the BBC1 ‘Inside Out’ programme broadcast an episode based on the Medomsley case. Everything was built on the platform of the Husband conviction sixteen years ago. What we saw was largely the hearsay testimony of a few ex detainees. There was no attempt at balance and the initial failure of Durham police wasn’t followed up, even though the ex-detainee who took a complaint to them was allegedly threatened with arrest if he persisted. No former members of the Board of Visitors were approached, a significant omission since they might have provided a lay person’s view of life in Medomsley. No-one doubts that Medomsley ran a tough regime and judging by the recent convictions some staff went too far and have been held to account. Never once though did the programme consider that all this massive investigation managed to achieve was five convictions and only two for serious offences: this on the back of 1600 witnesses who had come forward. Police officers interviewed for the programme gave us a demonstration of the soft voice/pained expression style of ham acting. The BBC weren’t going to spoil the whole tone by asking if it had been a hugely disproportionate investigation, which dragged on for five long years before it collided with reality in the shape of a CPS evidence test.
What became obvious whilst watching the programme was the lack of leadership at Medomsley. This allowed Husband to operate as an abuser and some other bullies who have rightfully been convicted. The police were also lacking in the leadership department too when they turned away the complainant. This huge and disproportionate investigation was Durham Constabulary’s response to its earlier failure.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service