Where care is locked out

Two months ago, the jury at the inquest into the death of
16-year-old Kevin Jacobs at Feltham young offenders institution
took the unprecedented step of returning a damning verdict of
“suicide to which neglect contributed”. It found gross deficiencies
within the system, including the failure to provide consistent and
safe accommodation in prison.

Jacobs was the subject of a care order and the responsibility of
Lambeth social services department when he was arrested, charged
and remanded to Feltham in July 2001. He remained at Feltham when,
later that month, a six-month detention and training order was
imposed on him.

During his three months there, Jacobs had self-harmed and been
bullied numerous times. Prison staff, social workers and doctors
all described him as exceptionally vulnerable, disturbed and at
risk. He hanged himself to the point of unconsciousness in his cell
in September 2001, but two prison officers found him in time and he

Yet just two weeks after his attempted suicide, Jacobs did kill
himself by hanging. Neither Feltham, Lambeth social services nor
the Youth Justice Board had attempted to find an alternative
placement for Jacobs, says Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, a
charity monitoring deaths in custody and providing legal advice to
bereaved families. No one seemed to know what the procedures were
when a child was viewed as being at risk of suicide or self-harm,
or who was responsible for child protection, she says.

“You had three agencies that had accepted he was at risk, but no
one seemed to think it was their responsibility to get him out,”
says Coles.

YOIs have a history of condemnation, mainly from former chief
inspector of prisons Sir David Ramsbotham. He has been scathing in
his reports, citing unsafe environments, breathtaking neglect and
unacceptably high self-harm and suicide rates. Many of his comments
have been included in a report launched this week highlighting the
treatment young offenders can expect in YOIs.1 Bullying
is rife and the main threat is from other young offenders – an
inspection by Sir David of one YOI found that all remanded
juveniles who had arrived in the previous 10 days were in constant
fear of assault from other children. In another YOI there were more
than 700 reported incidents of injuries to young people over an
eight-month period. The levels of distress and neglect in some
wings would have resulted in their closure if they had been
delivered in non-Prison Service establishments, Sir David

Violence and bullying, coupled with inadequate health and mental
health care, suggest that YOIs are unsuitable environments in which
to place some of our most vulnerable young people. Last month, the
UN Committee on the Rights of the Child highlighted its concerns
that children do not receive adequate protection in
YOIs,2 noting “the very poor staff-child ratio, high
levels of violence, bullying, self-harm and suicide, inadequate
rehabilitative opportunities and solitary confinement in
inappropriate conditions”.

It recommended that the government urgently review conditions and
ensure that all children deprived of their liberty have equal
statutory rights to education, health and child protection as other

A couple of weeks later, a report from eight independent
inspectorates identified the protection of young people in YOIs as
a major concern.3 Youth offending team (YOT) files were
examined in six areas and three YOIs were visited. Few referrals
under local child protection procedures were being made to social
services, and inspectors could not be confident of an appropriate
response that could safeguard these young people.

YOT files revealed that staff focused almost exclusively on
offending behaviour and there was little evidence of welfare needs
being considered and addressed. Just one area had a YOT
representative on the local area child protection committee, and
the committees were not engaging with the welfare of young people
in YOIs.

Coles says: “I feel very pessimistic about the institutions’
ability to reform themselves and become safe places, because a
culture of punishment and control is so ingrained.”

The inspectors’ report contrasts the serious risks faced by young
offenders in YOIs with the reported good quality of care and
protection provided in local authority secure accommodation. Why
the difference? The key reason is the quality of staff, says Coles.
The majority of professionals in secure units are trained in all
areas of child protection. Prison officers’ main priorities, on the
other hand, are containment and control, rather than support and
supervision. “It’s very telling that you don’t have children dying
in secure units,” she adds.

The incidence of self-harm and suicide among young offenders in
YOIs and prisons is indicative of the dangers posed by these
institutions. Statistics gathered by Inquest speak for themselves.
Since 1990, 163 young offenders aged 21 and under have committed
suicide in prisons and YOIs. Twenty were younger than 18.

But who is responsible for protecting them? It may come as a shock
to discover that the Children Act 1989 does not cover young people
in YOIs because domestic legislation does not apply to prisons,
which are governed by their own laws set out in the Prison Act
1952. This has left the 19 YOIs and prisons in England and Wales to
make their own child protection arrangements for more than 2,000 15
to 17 year olds they house. Many professionals think they have

Geoff Monoghan, senior policy development officer in the youth
crime section of rehabilitation agency Nacro, says: “My strong view
is that the Children Act should apply, end of story. The stock
defence from the Prison Service, Home Office and Youth Justice
Board is that child protection procedures are being put in place,
but this exposes them to be inadequate because there are no
statutory requirements in place. They are hard to monitor and not
robust enough… and can fall into disuse.”

Since April 2000, the Youth Justice Board has been responsible for
commissioning and purchasing placements in 14 YOIs. A spokesperson
for the YJB says it introduced a child-centred approach to young
people in custody that is reflected in standards the YJB sets with
the Prison Service. When standards fall it can take action – for
example, it recently froze placements at Ashfield YOI which was
considered unsafe for such large numbers of young offenders to be

According to the YJB, YOTs have many welfare targets including
ensuring those with mental health needs are referred to the
children and adolescent mental health services for

These measures are of little comfort to the families of the 15
young offenders who have killed themselves since Jacobs. In
contrast to young offenders’ treatment in YOIs, those placed in
secure units are covered by the Children Act 1989 because they
remain under the jurisdiction of social services. This discrepancy
is about to be challenged by the Howard League for Penal Reform. At
the time of writing, the organisation was due in the High Court to
challenge the government’s refusal to apply the Children Act to
prisons. The organisation is supported by Sir David Ramsbotham and
six national children’s charities.

According to the Howard League, young people in prisons are
routinely treated in ways that elsewhere would trigger a child
protection investigation, including excessive use of painful
physical restraint by staff and solitary confinement for more than
one week. It argues that government policy results in local
authorities taking the view that once a child from their area goes
into custody they have no further obligation towards them until
they are released.

Assistant director Fran Russell says: “We are arguing that the
Children Act was deemed to totally challenge the way children are
treated by the state and as such it supersedes the Prison

This principle has been successfully argued before, for example
with race relations legislation. If the argument is won, it would
mean greater involvement from social services, “probably something
they don’t relish because of the resource implications”, says
Russell. “But it would make prisons a lot more accountable. We hope
that the welfare of the child would become paramount.”

Why is the government so resistant to addressing the welfare needs
of young offenders? “The government says there’s no need [to bring
in the Children Act] because it has introduced multi-agency working
through youth offending teams,” says Russell. The same teams,
incidentally, were criticised in the inspectors’ report for working
in isolation from other services and failing to address child
protection issues.

As usual, it boils down to money. To bring YOIs up to the same
standard as secure units would cost a small fortune. But what price
a life? If the Howard League challenge fails, it will be
interesting to see how the government, the YJB and the Prison
Service justify their actions to the family of the next young
offender who hangs himself.

1 Children’s Rights Alliance for England,
Rethinking Child Imprisonment: a report on young offenders
, CRAE, 2002

Concluding Observations of the Committee on the
Rights of the Child
available from


3 DoH, Safeguarding Children available


“I am afraid for the children still

Two weeks before his trial for street robbery earlier this year,
16-year-old Joseph Scholes slashed his face with a knife in the
bedroom of his children’s home. There was so much blood the room
had to be repainted.   Scholes had a history of attempted suicide,
depression and self-harm.

His divorced parents had been involved in a bitter custody
battle, after Scholes said he had been sexually abused by a member
of his father’s family for several years.   When his mother,
Yvonne, could no longer cope, he went into a local authority
children’s home. Days later he went out with a group of young
people who committed a street robbery. Scholes pleaded not guilty,
and victims and witnesses said he had not stolen anything.  

But Scholes changed his plea to guilty because he was becoming
more mentally ill and could not stand the pressure any longer, says
Yvonne. Given his state of mind, his two-year sentence to Stoke
Heath young offenders institution in March this year came as a

On arrival he was assessed as at risk and placed in a cell in
the health centre. But just two days later this risk was downgraded
and he was sent over for “association” time on the normal wing. “We
believe other young offenders told him he would be in serious
trouble when he moved to the normal wing,” says Yvonne.  Just over
a week later, he hanged himself. When Yvonne identified his body,
he had torn off his fingernails and scratched the word “mum” on his
leg. “The mental health assessment let him down,” says Yvonne. “I
feel saddened, sickened and afraid for the children still

Murdered teenager Milly Dowler went missing around the same time
that Scholes killed himself. The media coverage for her case was in
stark contrast to Yvonne’s experience. Yvonne says: “Nobody cared
about Joseph. Yes, he had gone wrong in some respects, but he was
ill. Nobody laid wreaths at my door, nobody put it in the paper and
I found that very upsetting. It was as if Joseph was of no
significance because he was just a boy in a YOI.” 

The government cannot bury its head in the sand any longer, says
Yvonne. “How can there be children in society who aren’t covered by
the Children Act? The true crime is that the government is aware
that these things are going on, and doing nothing about it. They
are like forgotten children.”

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