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Friday, 5 March 2010

Deaths of children and young people in penal custody

INQUEST has been working to identify trends and issues emerging from the issue of deaths of children and young people in custody since 1990. We have also been concerned with the effectiveness of the state’s investigative processes for identifying and rectifying dangerous practices and procedures in order to ensure that lessons are learned and further fatalities prevented. We have worked on many child death cases, produced numerous documents on the issue and published a detailed analysis in the book In the Care of the State? Child deaths in Penal Custody in England and Wales by Barry Goldson and Deborah Coles (INQUEST 2005). It concluded that children should not be imprisoned save for in child-centred Local Authority Secure Children’s Homes.

Since January 2000 126 young people aged 18-21 and children aged 14-17 have died whilst in state custody in prisons, immigration detention centres and secure training centres. 113 of those young people took their own lives, and two died as the result of homicides by other prisoners. This figure includes 12 self-inflicted deaths of children in custody.

Our monitoring of the investigation and inquest process following the deaths of children and young people has revealed consistent and repeated features, illustrating that systemic failings are not being addressed but continue to be reproduced by the practices and processes of child imprisonment. The starting point is the very high levels of children being sentenced or remanded to custody (often at great distances from home) with no consideration by the court as to where the child will be detained. This is resulting in children who are often extremely vulnerable being sent to institutions which do not have the resources, facilities or trained staff to deal with their needs.

Increasing numbers of children and demonstrably vulnerable young people are being detained in manifestly unsafe environments and being subjected to bullying, degrading treatment such as strip-searching, segregation and restraint. This amounts to a failure by the state to fulfil its duty of care towards children in its custody and additionally is a significant and substantial breach of the UK’s international treaty obligations. However, the violation of the rights of this large body of children goes worryingly beyond inhumane and humiliating treatment. It has been proven forensically that it presents a persistent risk of injury, suffering or death to young people detained in child prisons.

The campaign for a public inquiry into the death of 16 year old Joseph Scholes in HMYOI Stoke Heath in 2002 received strong parliamentary support and galvanised both the public and NGOs. Our work on this campaign drew national and international attention to the high number of children and young people dying in the hands of the state. INQUEST also has particular concerns about the high levels of restraint used on children in custody. We produced case briefings on the restraint-related deaths in 2004 of 14 year old Adam Rickwood, who took his own life in Hassockfield Secure Training Centre shortly after being restrained by staff, and of 15 year old Gareth Myatt who was killed in Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre after being asphyxiated by three custody officers who restrained him after an incident following his refusal to clean a toaster. Our work with the families and their legal team was critical in exposing the dangerous and unlawful use of restraint. In 2007, we also campaigned successfully with the NSPCC and the Child Rights Alliance for England to end the use of pain compliance restraint techniques against children in custody.

Most recently an inquest concluded into the death of 15 year old Liam McManus who was found hanging in his cell in Lancaster Farms Young Offender Institution in 2007, the thirtieth child to die in state custody since 1990. The jury returned a six-page narrative verdict which criticised the YOI, social services and the Youth Justice Board's systemic failings of a seriously damaged young boy. It is deeply shocking that such failings across several agencies responsible for Liam's care were highlighted once again, despite all the previous inquests into deaths of children.

What the inquests held into the deaths of children and young people have uncovered is that the juvenile justice system needs urgent and profound public scrutiny, investigation and review, significantly wider in scope than the inquest process permits. It is essential for there to be a properly-resourced, transparent and critical analysis of the defects of the custodial treatment of children and young people in the form of a public inquiry in order to ensure that the deaths of the children of the families who we support are not to be entirely in vain.

Deborah Coles,

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