Ryan Clark verdict highlights youth custody failings

By Neil Puffett

| 29 January 2014

A verdict of accidental death has been delivered in the case of a 17-year-old who took his own life following threats and bullying at a young offender institution.

Perimeter fence at a young offender institution

Six teenagers died in custody in the space of two months in 2011. Picture: Phil Adams

Ryan Clark, who died in April 2011 after being found unconscious in his cell at Wetherby Young Offender Institution (YOI), was the first child to die in youth custody for four years.

An inquest jury this week found that a string of failures contributed to Ryan's death:

  • The extent of his vulnerability and susceptibility was not picked up on from relevant documents
  • Not all support that could have been available for him was provided – including the personal officer scheme, where an officer is allocated to a young offender on arrival in custody to provide support
  • Wetherby YOI’s scheme to address bullying and intimidation was ineffective

In light of the verdict, campaign organisation Inquest reiterated calls for a major review of deaths of young people in custody to be staged.

The jury concluded that Ryan’s actions were a “cry for help” due to the amount of verbal abuse and physical threats he was experiencing, rather then intentional suicide, and ruled by majority that his death was accidental.

Jane Held, independent chair of Leeds Safeguarding Children Board, had told the inquest that the system failed Ryan.

Although he was a looked-after child, who had been in care since he was 16 months old, during the last 12 months of his life, there was no single consistent professional responsible for him, his housing situation prior to his remand was dire, his care plan was insufficient, and he was treated as “troublesome” rather than “troubled, vulnerable and emotionally damaged”.

Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, which supports families of young people who have died in custody, said the system is failing “time and again” to protect children in its care. 

“It is clear that basic safeguards that should have been implemented to protect Ryan, a vulnerable 17-year-old, were either absent, ineffectual, or simply ignored,” she said.

“Deaths of children and young people do not just raise criminal justice issues but important issues outside the prison walls such as the role of social services, support for ‘looked after’ children and questions as to why a vulnerable child was imprisoned in the first place.

“There have been a pattern of deaths of children and young people with worryingly familiar themes which is why we are calling for an independent, wide-ranging and holistic review into the deaths of children and young people in prison.”

Ruth Bundey, solicitor for Ryan Clark’s family said: “It is welcome that the jury has recognised the very serious failings in the lead up to Ryan’s death.

“However, it is also clear that he was failed by those who were supposed to protect his welfare for a long time before that.

“Over 50 per cent of the children held in Wetherby YOI are looked-after children.

“Ryan’s death has raised serious questions about the protections afforded by the state to very vulnerable young people.”

Ryan Clark’s death was one of six cases of teenagers apparently taking their own life in custody in the space of just two months in 2011.

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