Stolen lives and missed opportunities

Ayesha Carmouche, Policy and Parliamentary Officer at INQUEST, writes about the failure of prisons to protect children and young people in their care and deal with their social problems.

Ayesha Carmouche
Thursday, 30 April, 2015

In April 2015, an inquest into the death of 18-year-old Greg Revell in Glen Parva YOI finished. Greg, a vulnerable young man showing vivid signs of previous self-harm, was sent to prison despite serious concerns about his mental wellbeing. In court he had shown great distress, crying as the judge sentenced him, while revealing visible marks around his neck following a recent suicide attempt.

Despite his agitated state, Greg was not placed under safeguarding procedures and was found hanging two days later. He was assessed by a number of staff members who all relied on his self-reporting, rather than making a full assessment based on all the facts about his known vulnerabilities. The jury's conclusions repeated a number of failures identified in previous inquests into the deaths of young people in Glen Parva.  Greg is one of nine young people who have taken their own lives since 2010 - the most recent only a few weeks before Greg’s inquest started.

These cases show that such deaths are not isolated cases, but part of a worrying pattern across the prison estate.  In 2014 the prison inspectorate delivered a series of damning reports on prison establishments. In Glen Parva, they found a regime characterised by bullying and endemic violence where nearly half the prisoners said they did not feel safe. Moreover their findings highlighted 'a direct link between the high levels of bullying and…self-harm where the risk of suicide or self-harm had increased by 32 per cent'. Meanwhile in other prisons, such as HMP Altcourse, there was evidence of prisoners forcing their way into segregation to escape the violence of the ordinary cellblock.

Based on its long-standing work with the families of children and young people who have died in prison, INQUEST launched an evidence-based report, Stolen Lives and Missed Opportunities: The deaths of young adults and children in prison. The report reflects the findings of INQUEST’s casework and documents the deaths of 65 young people and children in prison during 2011 and 2014. 62 of these young people were aged 18-24 years and three were children, two 17, one only 15.  83 per cent of the deaths were classified as self-inflicted, while the majority died in adult prisons – institutions not designed to cater to the distinct needs of a young age group.

Failures in the care, treatment and rehabilitation of young prisoners continue to be widespread and pervasive features of the prison estate. Behind the deaths is a litany of systemic failings, institutional complacency and short-sighted policies, which fail to address the multiple social disadvantage of those who enter prison. Based on a further analysis of the prisoners who died, 70 per cent had mental health issues, which included unresolved issues relating to childhood bereavement or abuse.  49 per cent had self-harmed previously. 30 per cent were care leavers, or had suffered some kind of family breakdown which required them to live apart from their family home.  And 23 per cent had special needs or learning difficulties, whilst 34 per cent had problems with alcohol and drug misuse.

Central to our findings was the abysmal lack of early intervention services, such as mental health support and social service provision, meaning a large number of young people were being unnecessarily pulled into the criminal system. Imprisonment further exacerbated the existing vulnerabilities of this marginalised group. The onslaught of budgetary cuts and punitive measures meant that young people were being placed in unsafe institutions, with scarce resources and staff untrained to deal with their complex needs.

The prison system has become a repository for failed social policies in education, social care and healthcare. Moreover, prison is an ineffective and expensive intervention that does not work, as demonstrated by high reconviction rates. According to the Ministry of Justice's September 2011 figures, 18–20 year olds had a re-offending rate of 56.1 per cent. This high re-offending rate fails both victims and communities.

Despite the mounting evidence highlighting the damaging effects of imprisonment, we have yet to see a political boldness and a willingness to implement evidence-based change. Countless inquest and investigation findings reveal a pattern of institutional and policy failings, accompanied by an unacceptable culture of complacency which has contributed to the deaths.

Not only is accountability needed for institutions which fail to protect those under their care, but we need a youth-focused and humane approach, both inside and outside the criminal justice system. We need a reallocation and redirection of resources towards community based alternatives. This would help to mitigate the effects of poverty, social exclusion and early life trauma which are commonly found among prisoners. Without radically rethinking the way in which we respond to young people in conflict with the law, these deaths will continue to shame our prison system and society.

You can read INQUEST's full report Stolen Lives and Missed Opportunities about the deaths of young people and children in prison.