PRISON campaigners last night called for a review of a North-East secure unit after revelations that 21 children had suffered injuries while being restrained.

The injuries were sustained by children at the privatelyrun Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, near Consett, County Durham, between June last year and May.

Officials defended the centre’s record last night, insisting the use of force was a last resort.

The unit has been at the centre of controversy since a 14-year-old died in its custody six years ago.

Adam Rickwood, from Burnley, Lancashire, hanged himself hours after being restrained by staff who used a controversial technique that involved striking him in the face. The “nose distraction”

method was authorised at the time but has since been banned.

Youth Justice Board statistics show that between April 2008 and March last year restraint was used 543 times on children in Hassockfield – an average of 45 times a month.

The Howard League for Penal Reform last night accused the educational watchdog Ofsted, which oversees secure training centres, of failing children in Hassockfield’s care.

In a letter, it said: “Children held in Hassockfield Secure Training Centre (STC) have been subject to violence, danger, fear and, possibly, abuse, yet Ofsted has failed to acknowledge this and prevent it.

“The inspection regime for STCs has failed to provide assurance that children in these institutions are being cared for safely.

“Two children have died while being held in an STC and, in both instances, restraint was a key factor.”

The group has a long standing opposition to privatelyrun prisons for children.

Director Frances Crook said: “It is time that we ended the obscene experiment with locking up children… and closed down these prisons.”

It has written to North-West Durham MP Pat Glass, calling for an overhaul of those responsible for the inspection of Hassockfield and similar units for children.

Mrs Glass said she would be seeking a meeting with staff to discuss their resources and training.

The MP, who has a background in the education of people with behavioural and special needs, said: “This is about the level of training and resources that staff are receiving.”

An Ofsted spokesman said: “The Howard League has a long-established view that secure training centres should be closed. Ofsted respects this.

“Our responsibility is to inspect and report on the evidence.

“The use of restraint is something that we scrutinise rigorously. We extensively review records of restraint, including the viewing of CCTV footage.

“We meet with both the Youth Justice Board and the local authority who are responsible for monitoring the use of restraint, and the advocates who visit the young people weekly. Most importantly, we talk to young people themselves, without staff present.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Restraint is only ever used as a last resort when young people’s behaviour puts themselves or others at serious risk.

“In response to recommendations made in 2007, the National Offender Management Service has developed conflict resolution training designed to provide staff with measures reducing the need for force.

“Staff will apply restraint techniques as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.

“Even where a young person is restrained, the emphasis will continue to be on using de-escalation techniques to minimise the use of force.”

The Government awarded a 15-year contract for running Hassockfield to private operator Serco in 1999.

The unit houses up to 58 young people aged 12 to 17, who are described by Serco as “some of the most damaged and difficult young people in the country”.

A spokesman said: “Our staff operate to a high standard of professionalism. Physical control is only used as a last resort. They do a good job, often in difficult circumstances, working with a demanding and challenging group of young people.”

Following Adam Rickwood’s death in 2008, the Appeal Court ruled that painful distraction techniques contravened human rights.

An Ofsted report in May found the overall quality rating of Hassockfield had improved since a previous inspection, but remained satisfactory. It noted there was a commitment by staff to minimise the use of restrictive physical intervention.