Letter to the Times

On 14th November Lord Harris (Chair of the Independent panel on deaths in custody) expressed his view that too many vulnerable people are imprisoned. Sadly, his commission has only been asked to look at deaths in custody of those aged over 18. But the overwhelming emotional and mental health problems that prompt self- harm start much earlier and are particularly prevalent among those children we lock up. While it is to be commended that the number of children in custody has decreased, this means that those we do incarcerate are the most vulnerable. They will have experienced abuse and domestic violence, have learning or speech and language difficulties and untreated mental health problems. One fifth of them will have self –harmed and 11% attempted suicide before they went into custody. It should be obvious that these children are in desperate need of care, therapy and a regime that assists in their rehabilitation if they are not to continue to offend and move into the adult prison system. It is therefore of great concern that the plans to spend £87 million on a new ‘secure college’ are being pushed through parliament. How can an establishment, purposely designed to be a cheap option and holding over 300 hundred children aged 12 to 17, hope to address these complex issues? In particular, we learn that the Rules for this secure college will allow physical force to be used to ensure ‘good order and discipline’. Let us not forget that a 14 year old boy committed suicide in custody because he had been restrained for this purpose, a measure that was found by the high court to be illegal at the time.

All the available evidence tells us that warehousing children in a large establishment is more likely to increase the risk of self – harm and suicide and will do nothing to reintegrate these children back into society.

Pam Hibbert, OBE, Chair National Association for Youth Justice
Professor Dame Sue Bailey, Chair Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition
Peter Hindley, Royal College of Psychaiatrists

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