Demands for inquiry into Traveller youth custody abuse claims

6 January 2017

A Labour MP has called for a government inquiry after research by a leading Gypsy and Traveller charity revealed that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children remain “hugely overrepresented”, overlooked and discriminated against whilst incarcerated in youth custody.

The Traveller Movement analysed data from HM Inspectorate of Prisons ‘Children in Custody’ report, which once again shows that Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children are hugely overrepresented. Their findings show that one in ten (12%) children in Secure Training Centres and 7% of boys in Youth Offender Institutions were Gypsy, Roma or Traveller.

Responding to the TM’s research, Kate Green, the influential backbench Labour MP and Justice Select committee Member, called for an inquiry into the causes of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children being overrepresented in the youth justice system and pointed out that these children had been “failed” by the state.

Kate Green speaks at the TM conf (600px * 450px)

Picture caption: Kate Green MP at the 2016 Traveller Movement conference

“It is about time the formal inquiry into what is leading to Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children being overrepresented in these institutions is launched,” she said.

Kate Green added that these children are “consistently failed as they progress through childhood” and pointed out that “more than half of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller boys in Young Offender Institutions had been 14 or younger the last time they were in education”, while “almost half of (these) children in Secure Training Centres had been in local authority care.”

“The state and its institutions, which ought to be promoting their wellbeing, are letting these children down. Rather than working with them and their families to prevent challenging behaviour from escalating out of control, each agency and institution passes responsibility on to the next until it is too late,” she said.

‘Almost one in three Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children reported physical abuse from staff’

The TM research (Overlooked and overrepresented: Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children in the youth justice system) also identified alarming trends and disturbing experiences of GTR children in youth custodial institutions.

On practically all measures, these children reported greater levels of abuse and victimisation from members of staff. Almost one in three (29%) reported that they had experienced physical abuse from staff.

In addition, the research showed that just under a third had received insulting remarks from a member of staff and were also twice as likely to report being threatened of intimidated by a member of staff. A quarter believed the abuse they had received from staff had occurred because they were from a “Traveller community”.

Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children also suffer at the hands of bullying from other children in custody. These children were five times more likely to report that they had their canteen/property taken from them by other children in Secure Training Centres (37% to 7%).

Kate Green said: “These children have been passed from pillar to post, with each agency and institution passing responsibility on to the next until their challenging behaviour escalates to the point that they end up in the criminal justice system.”

The absence of official recording of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children was also cited as a key cause of concern by the Labour MP.

“The absence of data means there is no pressure on STCs and YOIs or indeed the Youth Justice Board, to ensure Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children progress, rehabilitate or are even kept safe whilst they are detained.”

She added “These institutions therefore go unchallenged when it comes to addressing the needs and issues facing GTR children, and their experience of discrimination continues”.

‘A real willingness among Gypsies, Travellers and Roma children to seek education in prison’

Despite the TM research finding that over half of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma boys had been 14 or younger the last time they were in school, it also found that there is a real willingness among these boys to seek education in prison. The TM’s research showed that Gypsy, Traveller and Roma boys had a more positive outlook toward education compared to other boys; 70% of those who had taken part in education believed it would benefit them when they left.

In the same institutes, Gypsy, Traveller and Roma boys were far more likely than the other boys to be in education or purposeful activity (taking part in vocational training or a job); however in Secure Training Centres, Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children were far less likely to say they have been able to learn skills for jobs that they’d like to do in the future. This suggests the facilities are not developing adequate strategies to ensure GTR children prosper inside and are able to build positive, constructive lives upon release, says the TM.

 “Opportunities missed to reduce reoffending”

Commenting on the research, the Traveller Movement Chief Executive, Yvonne MacNamara, said:

“The evidence for the need of official data on Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children in youth custody continues to grow yet the Youth Justice Board and the Ministry of Justice still refuse to take action.

“Because GTR children are not recorded, they are not seen as a priority and therefore their experiences and needs are overlooked.”

“Worryingly, opportunities are also being missed to prevent a revolving door situation and reduce reoffending. The research shows an untapped potential and a real willingness by Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children to learn while they are in custody.”

“Matters seem to be only getting worse for children from GTR communities”

Deputy Chief Constable Janette McCormick, National Police Chiefs’ lead for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, pointed out that the overrepresentation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in custody was bucking a national trend that has seen a vast reduction in the number of children from the wider population ending up in custody.

“The findings are deeply concerning with the hugely disproportionate over-representation of (these) children in both types of facility just the first thing to strike anyone reading the report,” said Deputy Chief Constable McCormick.

“In the last ten years, the number of children in custody has fallen by some 66%, yet matters seem to be only getting worse for children from Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities.”

McCormick echoed Kate Green and the TM’s call for more monitoring of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in custody.

“I believe that consistent ethnic monitoring by all public services is a fundamental part of improving how those services fulfil their obligations under the Public Sector Equality Duty,” she said.

“These reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the Traveller Movement show how urgently such monitoring is needed, as well as how much work needs to be done to end the unfair disadvantage suffered by these people.”

Ellena Costello, Project Officer at the Irish Chaplaincy, a leading charity working with Gypsy and Traveller prisoners, welcomed the research and pointed out that the treatment of adult prisoners by staff and prison governors had improved following the National Offender Management Service’s decision to count and monitor prisoners from these ethnic groups.

“In our experience working with the adult prison estate we have seen how successfully monitoring numbers of Travellers and Gypsies has improved the outcomes for individuals in terms of education, Traveller groups and celebration of Traveller history month,” she said.

Ellena Costello’s comments were echoed by a Gypsy prisoner who said that prisoner groups and history month events were crucial.

Speaking to The Traveller’s Times, Kev, the prisoner chair of Stafford prison’s GRT Group, said that his group celebrated Gypsy, Roma, Traveller History month with the support of the prison staff and other prisoners:

“We only have a small number of Traveller prisoners here at Stafford, but the support we get from the non-Travellers is really good.”

“I think that every prison should have a GRT group. We get a very bad press and these groups help other people to understand our way of life and culture. It also helps to break down barriers between prison officers and Travellers.”

“In this prison, the staff go the extra mile to help and understand all cultures and religions.”

“Locked out of society”

The head of the Equalities watchdog has also joined the calls for an inquiry. David Isaac, Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission said that their own research showed that Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children growing up in Britain often felt like society is working against them.

“Our research reinforces these views and shows that disproportionate exclusion rates in schools, a lack of opportunities and discrimination are among the most significant reasons for the overrepresentation of these children in the youth criminal justice system,” he said.

“Government must develop a comprehensive strategy for tackling race inequality and encourage local councils, schools and young offenders institutions to work together to address the issues which leave many in the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma community feeling locked out of society.”

Access the Traveller Movement’s full research and data here: Overlooked and Overrepresented: Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children in the youth justice system

Read Kate Green MP’s blog on her concerns and remedy about the experience of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children in youth custody: Kate Green MP speaks out on Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children in custody