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65 Deaths of Imprisoned Children and Young People in Four Years - New Report Calls for Rethink in Approach

1 March 2015

A new evidence-based report published today, Stolen Lives and Missed Opportunities: The deaths of young adults and children in prison, reveals that in the past four years on average more than one young person has taken their life in prison across England and Wales every month.

The report covers the period between 1 January 2011 and 31 December 2014, and documents the deaths of 62 young people and three children (one aged 15 and two aged 17) who have died in prison.

  • 83% (54) were classified as “self-inflicted”.
  • 43% (28) of the deaths occurred in adult prisons compared with 35% (23) in mixed prisons of both young adult and adult offenders, and 22% (14) deaths in young offender institutions.
  • The highest number of deaths occurred in HMYOI Glen Parva (six) and HMP Chelmsford (four).

These findings feed into wider discussions about the lack of a youth-focused approach in prisons which pays inadequate attention to the specific needs of this age group. Research by Transition to Adulthood shows that emotional and cognitive maturity is often lacking for young adults aged 18-24, yet the criminal justice system fails to recognise their specific vulnerabilities.

Key findings in the report from INQUEST’s specialist casework with families of those who died include:

  • 30% (14 of the total of 47) of those who died were care leavers or had suffered some kind of family breakdown which required them to live outside of their immediate family home.
  • 70% (33) had mental health issues including diagnoses of personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and unresolved issues relating to childhood bereavement or abuse.  49% (23) had self-harmed previously.
  • 23% (11) had special needs or learning difficulties whilst 34% (16) had problems with alcohol and drug misuse.

The report argues for a fundamental rethink about the use of prison and calls for a political boldness and a more steadfast willingness to implement evidence-based change. The vulnerabilities of young prisoners have been well documented by countless research, investigations and inquest findings, yet they continue to be sent to unsafe environments, with scarce resources and staff untrained to deal with their needs.

A critical concern is that prison establishments have not learned lessons from previous deaths in prisons; too many deaths occur because the same mistakes are made time and again. In the light of these concerns, this report considers the implications and reasons behind the prison deaths since 2011.

INQUEST stresses the need for new thinking and new strategies if such deaths are to be avoided in the future. Early intervention and support services are crucial in diverting individuals away from the criminal justice systems. Currently young people are being failed by a range of services well before they entered custody. Moreover, failings in the care, treatment and rehabilitation of young adult and child prisoners continue to be widespread and endemic features of the prison system.

Deborah Coles, Co-director of INQUEST said:

“This report exposes a litany of systemic neglect, institutionalized complacency and short sighted policies.These deaths are the most extreme outcome of a system that fails some of society’s most disadvantaged children and young people.

The number of deaths is high because prison is overused as the societal solution to a range of social problems that need to be addressed elsewhere. Many young people were failed by a range of social and welfare services well before they entered custody.

Prison is an ineffective and expensive intervention that doesn’t work as revealed by the high reconviction rates. This fails both victims and communities.  Unless we radically rethink the way in which we respond to young people in conflict with the law the deaths will continue to shame our prison system and society.”

Sara Llewellin, Chief Executive of Barrow Cadbury Trust said:

“This report provides a particularly tragic window to see what is now irrefutable – a distinct approach to young adults at all stages of the criminal justice process would save young people’s lives, reduce future crime and prevent considerable economic waste.

“The fact that so many of the 62 deaths of 18-24 year olds in prison in the last four years could have been avoided if already-known lessons been learned, makes the current failure to change practice in these cases all the more appalling.

“It is encouraging that all three major political parties have recently made commitments to reform the way that young adults are managed within the criminal justice system. These must now be implemented to ensure that young adults’ developmental maturity is at least as important as their chronological age in criminal justice decision-making. This approach is now widespread in most of Europe. As well as being the right thing to do, it is supported by social and economic research, and by the general public.”

The report has been submitted to the Lord Harris Review of the deaths of 18 to 24 year olds in NOMS custody.

This report by INQUEST was funded by the Barrow Cadbury Trust as part of the work of Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance – a broad coalition of 13 leading criminal justice, health and youth charities.

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