Time to end the scandal of young people dying in prison

By Frances Crook

The review by Lord Harris of Haringey into the self-inflicted deaths of young adults aged 18-24 in custody is a magisterial overview of the failings in the system. It is the most comprehensive analysis of why so many young people are dying in our prisons ever undertaken.

The final report notes that 101 people in this age group have died in prisons between 2007 and 2014. So far, in 2015, the Howard League is aware of another nine young people who have taken their own lives behind bars.

There are challenging findings for the new government to consider. Lord Harris rightly asks fundamental questions, such as why so many of these young adults were in custody in the first place. Prison should be used as a last resort. It remains a hugely expensive way to guarantee failure and yet cuts to budgets and staffing mean that whatever hope that prisons might be places of rehabilitation is faint indeed. The review describes an environment where young adults spend too much of their time locked in their cells "not sufficiently engaged in purposeful activities", with their time "not spent in a constructive and valuable way."

The Harris review is also damning of political interference in the safe running of prisons. The last government's ill-advised changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, in order to make prisons more punitive, earns particular criticism.

These changes led to restrictions in access to books and the Books For Prisoners campaign, which is indirectly referred to by the review. In particular, it is noted that the court judgment which ruled the restrictions unlawful makes explicit reference to the importance of rehabilitation. Leadership on providing more effective support for vulnerable people in prison must come from the top.

Hot on the heels of Harris, the Howard League has published a report with the Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A), You can't put a number on it, which explores maturity for young adults in the criminal justice system. It draws on participation work involving over 80 18-24 year-olds with experience of the criminal justice system from across England and Wales.

An important lesson from the report is that everyone matures at a different rate and that maturity has little to do with age or legal status. Maturity is complicated. As one young man doing group-work in a prison told us: "I think adulthood begins at different ages for different people". There is mounting evidence that young people develop both neurologically and physically well into their twenties and that some of those changes affect their behaviour and their ability to cope with the punitive and often infantilising setting of prison.

The criminal justice system should be better at giving young people responsibility so they can grow and develop, including help with interpersonal and practical life skills.

Young people want solutions based around them as individuals and which adapt with them as they grow.

A particular concern raised by many young people who spoke to the Howard League was that of the so-called 'paper self', the identity constructed for them by the criminal justice system at a time when they are still finding out who they are. Bureaucratic assessments contained within pre-sentence reports, sentencing remarks, police records or assessments in prison can become the basis for all professional interaction with young people. Young people described facing prejudice based on what staff read and not the person they met, or hearing inaccuracies about close family members based on documents that were no longer up to date.

Harris echoes the Howard League's findings around maturity and supports the T2A contention that maturity should be a primary consideration in making decisions relating to all aspects of how young adults are treated by the criminal justice system.

The review makes various recommendations to ensure consistent and appropriate professional support when young people are imprisoned.

The important question now is: what happens next? A challenge has been placed before Michael Gove at the Ministry of Justice, and before judges, magistrates, prisons, the Crown Prosecution Service and police. If the Harris review is to achieve something meaningful for our troubled young people, then everyone has to play their part in building the change that will save lives.

Frances Crook is Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform

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