Bernard Trafford: Medomsley Detention Centre claims boil the blood

Dr Bernard Trafford shares his views after the Medomsley Detention Centre story appeared on BBC's Inside Out programme

Dr Bernard Trafford Headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Jesmond
Dr Bernard Trafford Headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Jesmond

Monday night’s local BBC news reported ongoing investigations into alleged abuse at the former Medomsley Detention Centre, near Consett. At that secure unit for young offenders it appears that literally hundreds of boys were assaulted and/or sexually abused during the 1980s. It made my blood boil.

You might expect that, of course. After all, I’m a teacher. My profession and vocation are about care for the young. And when those who are supposed to care turn out to be abusers, to me the discovery is all the more shocking.

Many of those sent to Medomsley, says the BBC, were first time offenders often detained for relatively minor offences. A 17-year-old who was sexually abused was sent there for stealing biscuits from a factory. And if boys weren’t being viciously raped by members of staff, it appears it was routine for them to be beaten up by other inmates while officers looked on.

The alleged offences took place during the 1970s and 80s. There are now 70 police officers working on the case: Medomsley was closed in the 1980s.

What a sick place it must have been and what a sick part of society which still casts a shadow over hundreds of lives.

I’ll tell you what makes me so angry. Ever since I’ve been a teacher, and even more since I’ve been a head, I’ve had to listen to the lectures of self-professed experts (some of them in positions of power as politicians) who reckon people like me are soft, because we are liberals and believe in giving young people chances, opportunities, dignity and freedoms.

If I had a pound for every time I’d been lectured by someone about how we should bring back the cane to sort out the problems in schools – because it never did them any harm, they claim (with a twitch) – I’d be a rich man.

The Medomsley regime was deliberately, officially tough. It really was one of those institutions applauded (I expect) by politicians who advocated a short, sharp shock for young offenders. Oh, that stuff goes down so well at party conferences. Get tough, get back to basics: there are votes in it, too.

Just what is, or was, a “short, sharp shock” for young offenders? To a normal (rather than abusive) adult I guess it means early starts: maybe cold showers; physical jerks; hard work; lots of drilling and marching (I’ve never seen the point of that, but it seems to be part of it); and, above all discipline. It teaches youngsters the difference between right and wrong and how to behave properly.

That’s what the proponents say. Only they’re wrong. A regime such as I’ve described, even without any wrongdoing in the form of violence or abuse, merely teaches conformity and dependency. It may get young offenders into an ordered way of life: but once that regime is removed from them, once they are back in the world at large, it’s taught them nothing of use for living an adult life without people to order them around.

Besides, the regime is inevitably unreasonable. There isn’t any reasoning or questioning. Authority is absolute.

And when authority is absolute, it inevitably goes wrong. When it can’t be questioned, authority becomes tyranny. And when tyranny can’t be challenged, the evil-doers creep in, because there’s no one to stop them.

Honestly, would a normal person really go and work in a place that is deliberately tough, designed to make the lives of young people unpleasant? Of course not. So those working there are either misled (probably in the case of the majority) or depraved, certainly true of a minority. And now, decades later, the truth is finally beginning to emerge. And it’s sickening. The first time I wrote something along these lines, in a local paper far from here, I got abusive letters calling me a “bloody bleeding heartdo-gooder”. I was rather proud then. I’m still proud of being one.

I know we need prisons. We even need secure units for some young people. As a school head I have to exercise discipline. Sometimes I have to punish children who get things wrong. Sometimes I even have to throw them out of my school, something I do with the heaviest of hearts, after a lot of soul-searching and with an intense sense of failure. There must be justice, and there must be penalties.

But no justice and no crime (particularly by a young person) justifies bullying, violence or abuse against the inmates of such a place. And, when you remove from the victims any right to a voice, any means of being heard, of speaking out against injustices, then abuse will occur unhindered, unconstrained. If my denunciation of this kind of abuse of power makes me a wishy-washy liberal, bloody bleeding heart do-gooder, so be it. Cases like Medomsley demonstrate how necessary it is to balance children’s rights with responsibility, not to deny them both.

If this investigation into the latest of a long, tragic line of abuse cases in care homes, old-fashioned proprietorial boarding schools and other related places such as Medomsley achieves nothing else, let it at least silence the would-be hard-liners, the discipline freaks and the denigrators of children’s rights who helped to create places like Medomsley and even now, though fortunately with less frequency, call for their return.

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