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Calls for reform following youth prison deaths report

1st Mar 2015

New figures have shown that over the last four years, 65 children and young adults have died while being detained, an average of one a month.

The data was detailed in a report published by campaign group Inquest, and now there are fresh calls for a ‘fundamental rethink’ about how suitable prison is for young people, with ‘a litany of systemic neglect, institutional complacency and short-sighted policies’ being responsible for the deaths.

This report arrives alongside the results of other inquiries, that from Lord Harris into how to reduce the numbers of deaths of 18 to 24 year olds while in prison, and another by the Howard League for Penal Reform documenting how the closure of some jails is forcing other prisons to take on more inmates than is manageable.

Of the deaths discussed in the new report, the majority were classified as ‘self-inflicted’, with 29 of these 54 happening in single cells, raising questions over the quality of risk assessments being conducted on those imprisoned alone. The remaining deaths were attributed to ‘natural causes’, homicide, and ‘unknown’. The 4 homicide cases drew attention to concerns over prison health and safety, particularly for cellmates where one is known to have violent tendencies.

Co-director of Inquest, Deborah Coles, believes that there are so many prison deaths because ‘prison is, by its very nature, dehumanising and violent’ and that the generic approach taken to imprisoning young people is ‘counter-productive to the neurological and psychological developmental stage of 18 to 24 year olds’. She highlights a statement in the report which claims that the systems set up to safeguard children and young adults in the prison system frequently fail, pointing towards a view that ‘prison is an ineffective and expensive intervention that does not work’.

Recent governments have ‘hardened their political rhetoric to appear tough on crime’, adds Coles, but in doing so, have overlooked other solutions to reforming criminal youths, including placements in communities or therapeutic environments ‘where behavioural change can be supported’.