Statewatch article: RefNo# 33132
Fatally Flawed: Has the state learned lessons from the deaths of children and young people in prison? Prison Reform Trust and INQUEST, 2012, pp.66 (ISBN: 978-1-908504-03-6) by Marie Martin
Statewatch Journal; vol 23 no 1 March 2013
Between 2003 and 2010, INQUEST provided specialised casework services to the families of children and young adults who died in custody in the UK. In 2005, the charity published its first overview on the subject called In the care of the state?

INQUEST’s monitoring of the deaths of young people and children started in 2003 following the death of Joseph Scholes (16) who died in a Young Offenders Institution (YOI) in March 2002 “rais[ing] serious concerns about the treatment of vulnerable children and young people within the criminal justice system.” Despite the charity’s and families’ requests, the call for a public inquiry into the deaths of five children and 188 young adults since 2003 was rejected.

This joint report by the Prison Reform Trust and Inquest aims to provide an alternative to the absence of a concerted approach by the authorities, and the “inadequate institutional responses to the deaths of children and young people in prisons.” It analyses “trends and evidence derived from the deaths of children and young people [18 to 24 years old] between 2003 and 2011.”

The report provides a comprehensive overview on the reality of the detention of young adults and children: the vulnerability assessment mechanisms in place, the inquest process following a death in custody, research establishing the specific needs of children and young adults in detention. The authors also provided statistics and background information on the detention of children and young adults and on the profile of those who died in custody between 2003 and 2011. Their statistical research shows that “recommendations from inquests and investigations into previous deaths have not been properly implemented.”

Both organisations took the cases of five children or young adults who died in custody to illustrate different shortcomings in understanding the causes for these deaths, from the decision to put the young offender in custody (the issue of the custodial threshold), to the assessment of the children and young adults’ vulnerability and their special needs – including mental health problems and risks of self-harm.

The report starts with a description of the investigation process following the death of a child/young adult at a secure children’s home, securing training centre, young offender institution or adult prison. This process has been amended since the adoption of the Serious Case Review Process in 2008 but is still believed to have a “limited effectiveness”, particularly because of the length of the procedures (up to two years as identified by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody in 2011), the impediments to family participation, and the lack of transparency in the conclusions of the investigations. Most reports are kept out of the public eye, including the feedback given by different agencies to the coroner on the measures to prevent further deaths. Moreover, despite the adoption of the Coroner and Justice Act in 2009 (partly in force in 2013) underlying issues such as sentencing policy will not be part of what coroners consider.

Despite the reduction in the number of children detained in recent years, there were still 1,690 children in custody in 2012, almost one quarter of them on remand. Among them, 26% were below the age of 16, with an over-representation of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people who make up to 27% of the children in custody, although they represent only 15% of the general population. The research found that this particular group is treated less favourably when it comes to the reduction of the use of custody for children. The report stresses the importance of using detention as a last resort, since “ample research evidence shows that many children are in fact imprisoned for offences that are not very serious.” In line with the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the authors believe that England and Wales should raise the age of criminal responsibility which at ten years of ages is the lowest in the EU. The detention of young adults is also considered to be inappropriate. First of all, 18-24 year olds are not treated as a specific group despite the Inspector of Prisons’ recommendations in 2011. Empirical research has emphasised their vulnerability, especially emotionally and psychologically. Studies referred to in the analysis show that young people in prison are more likely than adults to have mental health problems and are more likely to take their own life. Second, these young adults have “a disproportionate level of involvement in the criminal justice system,” making up 25% of the total prison population (as of June 2011).

Through their work, both organisations have come to the conclusion that children and young adults held in custody are “amongst the most disadvantaged in society” – homelessness, death of a parent, time spent in care, victims of domestic violence or abuse, drug issues, mental health problems - and had in many instances been “failed by the systems set up to safeguard them from harm.”

The decision to put children and young adults in custody despite their vulnerability, and the failure to address their fragility once detained are considered as the main causes for self-harm and suicide cases. Between 2003 and 2011, 194 young people died in custody including six children. 83% of the deaths amongst those aged 18-24 were self-inflicted. The report points at disastrous shortcomings in the assessment of the vulnerability of detained children and young adults despite the recommendations in 2006 by the Lambert Report following Joseph Scholes’s death. The report criticised the failure to protect young adults detained in prisons from bullying, and the absence of sufficient medical care and therapeutic services in prison.

An entire section of the report is dedicated to the disturbing use of restraint against children and young adults, a practice which was reviewed in 2007 following the death of two young adults, one in prison and the other in a secure children’s home. However, if “pain restraint techniques” are now prohibited in all secure children homes, new guidelines adopted by the Ministry of Justice in July 2012 still allow for the use of pain-inducing restraint techniques on children in prison. According to the authors, “there is no such thing as ‘entirely safe’ restraint. Restraint is intrinsically unsafe. And when it does not end in physical injury the experience and the memory can be profoundly damaging psychologically.”

This report is a plea for common sense. It provides further evidence, based on the terrible reality of deaths of children and young adults, that under-18s should not be detained and the decision to hold a young adult in custody should be more carefully considered. A 2008 study by the Prison Reform Trust found that 60% of the children were convicted although the offence usually resulted in non-custodial sentences. INQUEST and the Prison Reform Trust argue that “minor offences and anti-social behaviour should be viewed as a public health rather than a criminal justice issue” and calls for more “emphasis on therapeutic environments.”

Link to the report: link

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