Tragic deaths in custody point to a system in need of reform
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Five young people in custody died in the space of just 33 days during March and April. The tragedies mark an exceptionally horrific spell in the youth prison system. To put it in context, no more than five teenagers have died in custody during any entire year since 2005, when the figure was nine.
Society and media will never pay much attention to the welfare of teenagers who are deeply troubled and deeply troublesome, only their misdemeanours. On the day that 17-year-old Ryan Clark's (barely reported) suicide at Wetherby young offender institution emerged, the front pages dripped with outrage over pictures of the damaged face of four-year-old Jersey-Lou Perry after a "teenage yob" had hurled a brick at her. It was a terrible act, granted, but given the non-reporting of Ryan Clark, highlighted the warped sense of perspective.
The circumstances surrounding each of the five deaths, all as a result of hanging themselves, are thus far unknown so we should be careful about drawing firm conclusions. But nor should this spate of suicides be explained away as some sort of statistical freak.
Indeed, as criminologist Tim Bateman says, the deaths represent "the top end of a continuum of harm" (see p8). Much other unreported harm, physical and psychological, goes on day in day out inside young offender institutions (YOIs). The result is that reoffending rates are very high. If containment and punishment are to be the be-all and end-all of youth prisons, then YOIs will do just fine. But if this government is serious about its policy to rehabilitate more young offenders, a different kind of configuration of the secure estate is needed.
Unlike YOIs and secure training centres, there has never been a suicide in a secure children's home, used to accommodate the youngest and most vulnerable offenders. These establishments have much higher staff-to-inmate ratios. Workers are qualified to provide care rather than containment and the focus is on improving children's outcomes. They are, inevitably, far more expensive to run.
The government should be brave and reinvest the savings from the recent fall in custody numbers into beginning to build a secure estate infrastructure that is more fit for purpose. That will reap its own rewards in the long run.