In the Media

The number of child deaths in custody is a national scandal

PUBLISHED April 17, 2012

There are some issues, such as the abuse of older people in care homes or parental neglect of children, that slip beneath the media radar only to re-emerge periodically amid a storm of public outrage. These are issues society can collectively get behind tackling. Then there are those issues, such as the deaths of children and young people in custody, that follow a similar pattern of cyclical media exposure but don't elicit the same degree of righteous anger and calls for reform.

In January, the deaths of two teenagers in prison, 17-year-old Jake Hardy, who was found hanging in his cell in a young offender institution (YOI) in Wigan, and 15-year-old Alex Kelly, who was discovered unconscious in a youth jail in Kent, generated scant news coverage. And, again, there was no public outcry. There were no ubiquitous demands that the youth justice system be investigated to ascertain why two teenagers died needlessly ? teenagers who had been identified as at risk of self-harm and suicide.

Why, when such deaths keep occurring, is it not a national scandal? Perhaps we can morally detach ourselves because the youngsters involved have criminal records. Whatever the reasons for the seeming lack of public concern, the fact remains that many of those within youth prisons ? whether younger children in secure training centres (STCs) or older teenagers in YOIs ? are among the most vulnerable in society. Many have complex needs, including learning disabilities and mental health problems. Many have been in care. It is our shared public duty to protect them.

Following the death of their son, Hardy's parents called for a full public inquiry into the deaths of vulnerable youngsters held within the youth prison estate. There have been 272 deaths of under 21s (including 33 under the age of 17) in prison custody in England and Wales since 1990. So far, 90% of these have been classified as self-inflicted deaths. The Hardy family's call echoes those of penal reformers, including the charity Inquest, which for years has been arguing that only a complete laying bare of "underlying systemic issues" will produce effective and enduring change. Inquest's co-director, Deborah Coles, sums it up: "The failure of successive governments to hold an inquiry makes it impossible to learn from failures that have cost children their lives." She adds: "Dead [imprisoned] children don't win votes."

According to Enver Solomon, director of policy at the Children's Society and chair of the standing committee for youth justice, there is a disconnect between how the youth prison estate operates and what young people actually need. "I think the fundamental question is, 'Are we placing vulnerable children in the right settings?' These institutions are prisons. They are not therapeutic environments, and they are not primarily concerned with the welfare of young people."

But the coalition is not ignoring concerns about youth prisons. A 12-week consultation on a new joint framework for inspecting STCs has just been launched. Its focus is safety and wellbeing. And the introduction of specialist units within YOIs to cater for young people with complex needs is some recognition that the system is flawed.

Penal reformers, however, are right to argue that piecemeal adjustments won't solve the problem of vulnerable young people being placed in institutions that are, as Solomon puts it, "not fit for purpose". Campaigners want the system overhauled and in its place a more "child-centred", welfare approach to dealing with troubled young people.

Perhaps a public inquiry is the best first step. At least it would allow for a root-and-branch evaluation of what is going wrong ? and how we may put it right.

Mary O'Hara is a social affairs writer and Alistair Cooke Fulbright scholar.