GAVIN ENGELBRECHT trawls through The Northern Echo archives to uncover evidence that the authorities missed several chances to uncover the scale of abuse at Medomsley Detention Centre

WITHIN months of its opening, a Home Office minister said Medomsley Detention Centre was designed to be a place which young criminals would consider "an unpleasant experience".

No-one could envisage just how unpleasant it would turn out to be.

The now notorious centre, built in 1960 on the site of a Victorian orphanage, was one of a handful of new detention centres designed to hold offenders aged 17 to 21.

They were supposed to keep young offenders out of prison and away from the influence of older criminals.

But they were still designed to offer a tough introduction to life behind bars.

Speaking of the opening of Medomsley in 1961, Conservative Home Secretary Rab Butler told the House of Commons: "I rely absolutely on the regime in detention centres to be effective and strict".

Junior minister Charles Fletcher-Cooke spoke more bluntly of "unpleasant experience and enforced discipline".

Medomsley opened in February 1961, with around 30 staff looking after 75 inmates.

The Northern Echo reported it would offer "simple and secure" accommodation while providing "a short, sharp lesson" for inmates.

"It will provide the usual sort of regime of a detention centre: brisk activity under strict supervision, early morning physical training followed by domestic duties and work".

The report referred to "the quietest-ever opening" of an official building adding: "the event passed almost unnoticed".

The first allegations of abuse inside Medomsley surfaced six years after its opening.

Concerns about brutality were raised in August 1967 by David Watkins, the then recently-elected MP for Consett, when the mother of a teenage boy claimed he was repeatedly beaten by prison staff.

The 17-year-old, from Stanley, spent five weeks in hospital suffering abdominal and groin pain shortly after starting a three-month sentence for assault.

The teenager said he was kicked and punched by staff and beaten with a sweeping brush. He told his MP: "Officers were kick and thump happy. It was like a prisoner of war camp.

"I was kicked, hit and struck with various objects. The officers were vicious.

"When I got there I was thumped in the mouth because I had five cigarettes in my pocket."

As soon as the claims emerged, three recently released inmates independently contacted The Northern Echo to back up his story.

One 17-year-old claimed to have been thrashed across the bare chest with a studded belt and said fellow inmates would attempt to break their own arms and legs to be sent to hospital away from Medomsley. "It was like hell," he said.

A youth from Darlington claimed almost every new inmate was beaten on arrival, while boys were forced to bunny-hop, crouching down into a squat then jumping along a corridor.

Anyone collapsing with exhaustion were kicked until they continued.

A 20-year-old from Bishop Auckland claimed to have been punched in the mouth and had seen other boys lifted off the ground by being punched in the stomach.

He said the bunny-hop punishments went on into the night: "I have heard screams when I have been in bed at night, but nobody reports it in case they get filled in".

Mr Watkins contacted Roy Jenkins, Home Secretary in Harold Wilson's Labour Government, to highlight the allegations.

The Northern Echo:

Just nine days later, the MP received a letter from Home Office minister Lord Stonham saying "careful inquiries had been made" and there was "nothing to substantiate" the claims.

It added that the hospital examination of the 17-year-old: "revealed nothing to support the complaint that he had been assaulted".

Mr Watkins, who died in August last year, told journalists: "I am now satisfied that the allegations are unfounded. I think that no value can be attached to what the boy and his mother allege".

The allegations pre-date the arrival of paedophile prison officer Neville Husband, who terrorised inmates during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Husband was in charge of the centre's kitchens, where he selected young men to be raped on an almost daily basis, then intimidated them into silence.

He was eventually convicted of rape in 2003 and sentenced to 10 years, but died of natural causes seven years later.

Prison inspectors visited Medomsley in 1977 and again in 1985, but found nothing untoward.

Indeed, the only criticism levelled in the 1985 report was of the kitchens, described as being in a "deplorable state".

However, the authorities had a second chance to uncover the truth about Medomsley in 1982, following the death of two teenage inmates in a matter of months.

In September 1981, 18-year-old diabetic Ian Shackleton died after slipping into a coma following a mix-up over access to his insulin.

The Northern Echo:

How The Northern Echo reported the insulin death

Five months later in January 1982, 17-year-old David Caldwell, from Hebburn, suffered a severe asthma attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at Shotley Bridge Hospital.

Mr Caldwell, serving a three-month sentence for theft, was allegedly left unsupervised on Medomsley's medical wing for two hours as he deteriorated.

An inquest concluded that he died of natural causes, but also heard allegations he suffered physical abuse by prison staff in the weeks before his death.

Mother Sylvia Caldwell said her son suffered from chronic asthma, but was forced to do harsh physical training and was beaten.

His sister Carole Kyle told the inquest: "The bruises on his legs were caused by him being kicked around by prison officers.

"He said when they were scrubbing floors if they didn't say 'sir' it would happen.

"The first day he was there he didn't say 'sir' and he was hit and slapped across the face."

The deaths prompted Mr Watkins to call on the Conservative Government to hold a full inquiry into Medomsley.

Ministers agreed and it was carried out in February and March 1982, while Husband was still in post.

A report, published six weeks later by Home Office minister Lord Belstead, found that allegations of maltreatment made by the family could not be substantiated and cleared the detention centre of blame.

It said: "Medomsley has a good record in the medical and other spheres and I hope that what happened in these very sad cases will not be allowed to obscure the facts."

Again, Mr Watkins accepted the findings of the inquiry saying: "There is no question of their having been maltreated in the detention centre".

By now, Margaret Thatcher's incoming Government had introduced its "Short, Sharp, Shock" regime to detention centres, in the belief tough military-style discipline would provide a better deterrent.

New inmates at Medomsley would spend the first two weeks of their sentence scrubbing floors and there was a greater emphasis on physical training.

The Northern Echo:

In March 1985, the Home Secretary Leon Brittan, pictured above right, visited Medomsley and praised the positive impact the new regime was having. He told reporters: "Most of them don't like it. They find it particularly a shock at the beginning."

Medomsley eventually closed in 1987 and it would be more than a decade before the scale of abuse perpetrated behind its walls would emerge.