Young offenders

A survey of vulnerability and mental illness among young

Using data collected in a national survey of prisoners in 1997,
this research relates specifically to offenders aged 16-20 in
custody. The figures are alarming.

The researchers interviewed 590 young people in custody and,
with their permission, obtained their health records. A sub-sample
were interviewed using psychological tests to check for signs of
mental illness and distress. The research found that:

  • Two-thirds of the sample had been unemployed prior to coming
    into prison; few had any educational qualifications.
  • One in three of the young women and one in 20 of the young men
    reported having been sexually abused prior to imprisonment.
  • 29 per cent of the young men and 35 per cent of the young women
    had been in local authority care as children.
  • Almost two-thirds had used illegal drugs in the month before
    they were imprisoned.
  • More than one in 10 of the young men, and 27 per cent of the
    young women had received treatment for mental health or emotional
    problems in the year prior to their imprisonment.
  • Once in prison, a remarkably high proportion of the young
    people showed signs of serious mental health problems.

While high levels of depression, anxiety and sleeping problems
might be expected among prisoners, other statistics make sobering
reading. For example, 17 per cent of the young male remand
prisoners had contemplated suicide in the year prior to their
imprisonment, and of the young people given clinical interviews,
more than 80 per cent were diagnosed as having personality

While serving the sentence, things got much worse for many. More
than one-third said they had used drugs during their sentence. Half
reported victimisation with threats of violence, theft of
belongings involving intimidation, and assaults. Some 10 per cent
of the young women reported receiving unwelcome sexual attention in
prison, and 3 per cent had been sexually assaulted.

At a time when government policy is leading to a rapid increase
in the number of young people in custody, this research provides
evidence of the extreme vulnerability of many of the young people
who are being sent to prison.

Source: Deborah Lader, Nicola Singleton and Howard Meltzer,
Psychiatric Morbidity Among Young Offenders in England and
, Office for National Statistics, 2000.

Brian Williams is reader in criminal justice at De
Montfort University.

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