Yvonne Scholes lived a 90-minute drive away from the young
offender institution where her 16-year-old son Joseph was placed
and it took a while to organise a visit to see him.
For one thing she had to make arrangements for her younger son
Jack, who is disabled. In the end, on the morning she and her
daughter planned to make the trip, Yvonne had just finished making
their sandwiches when there was a knock at the door. It was the
police, who told her that four hours earlier her son had hanged
himself in his cell.
We feature Yvonne’s story – and that of another mother of a
troubled youngster. We also highlight figures showing an inexorable
rise in the number of children and young people in custody as well
as the shocking statistics on youth deaths in prison.
The rationale behind the Back on Track youth justice campaign that
Community Care is launching this week is that the current system
has gone seriously wrong. Change is urgently needed, and not just
because vulnerable young people are being damaged, criminalised and
are having their basic human rights infringed, although that in
itself is reason enough for action. The fact that about 80 per cent
of 14-17 year olds released from prison are reconvicted within two
years is clear evidence that prison isn’t working.
Over the coming weeks we will be looking at alternatives to custody
as well as some of the factors that propel children into crime,
such as exclusion from school or their experience of the care
We will also be highlighting the often disgraceful conditions
children are held in, as well as scandals such as the long journeys
young people are forced to endure, herded into the back of vans
with no access to food or water – or a toilet – for hours on
We will be looking at the effect on families when a child is put
behind bars. There are some disturbing cases, including one mother
who has had three children hang themselves while in custody. Two
died while the third’s suicide bid has left him in a persistent
vegetative state for the last six years.
Community Care believes that one day people will look back
with shame at what is done to children who get caught up in the
criminal justice system. We hope our readers will support our
campaign to try to bring about change. The mantra about being tough
on crime and tough on the causes of crime has been at the heart of
government policy since Labour came to power in 1997 – and the
focus seems to have been more on children than adults.
The philosophy that young offenders are often vulnerable children
has given way to the more crowd-pleasing approach of treating them
all as yobs. Nowhere is this more apparent than the ease with which
the phrase “antisocial behaviour” trips off the tongue of both the
media and the public. Alongside this, the public naming and shaming
of children has increased, to the extent where some authorities
have even put up Wild West-style “Wanted” posters.
This increasingly punitive climate puts us in danger of
criminalising young people – often before they have actually
committed an offence. The clearest example of this is antisocial
behaviour orders (Asbos), which have pushed many vulnerable and
damaged young people into the arms of the criminal justice system
rather than the welfare system.
Geoff Monaghan, chair of the National Association for Youth
Justice, says: “All the pre-crime prevention and antisocial
behaviour stuff taken together has resulted in a serious blurring
of youth justice and welfare definitions. The breach of an ASBO is
seemingly, but I’m sure wrongly, accepted as so serious that
nothing other than a custodial sentence is appropriate.”
Asbos are not controlled by youth offending teams (Yots) but by
councils, police and housing, which blurs the boundary between
Yots/criminal justice agencies and welfare/education agencies,
Monaghan adds. Consequently, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) and Yots
are taking the lead in areas where many would prefer to see social
services, education or health setting the agenda. But why has this
happened? “Social services and other agencies have failed children
in need who are at risk of offending,” says Monaghan. “And with its
high political priority and funding levels and Youth Justice Board
energy, the youth justice system has stepped in – but across a line
that it shouldn’t have crossed in principle.”
And although there has been a welcome growth in restorative
justice, the tension between that and the increase in punitive
intervention is still much in evidence. The biggest indicator of
this trend is the fact that there are more young people in custody
in England and Wales than any other European country. A major
disappointment for professionals working with young offenders was
that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 continued to support locking
up children as young as 12.
One criminal justice expert who asked not to be named says: “In the
past, magistrates were told custody was a damaging experience for
children, but DTOs [detention and training orders] made magistrates
more comfortable about using custody. So we saw an expansion in its
use, when strengthening community provision was the actual
The YJB’s director of policy Brendan Finegan agrees that the number
of young people sentenced and remanded to custody needs to be
reduced. However, he says that while there is more to be done, the
YJB has reduced the time taken to bring persistent young offenders
to justice; set up schemes to target children at risk of offending;
brought in community sentences, intensive supervision and
surveillance programmes as an alternative to custody; and raised
standards of care and education in custody.
“We know there is more to be done,” says Finegan. “Young offenders
must be able to access the services they are entitled to, such as
education and mental health, so that we can reduce the likelihood
Former prime minister John Major once said, when referring to young
offenders, that we needed to “condemn a little more and understand
a little less”. Unfortunately, the Labour government has embraced
Youth Justice Board
The Youth Justice Board was set up under the Crime and Disorder
Act 1998 to monitor the performance and operation of the entire
youth justice system. Its primary aim is to prevent offending by
children and young people under 18. Its statutory duties include
commissioning and purchasing places in the juvenile secure estate
(young offender institutions, secure training centres and local
authority secure children’s homes) for young people sentenced or
remanded to custody.
The act provided youth justice agencies with a host of new
interventions and punishments to tackle youth crime. These
- Local child curfew schemes to ban children from certain
- Child safety orders to provide targeted intervention with
children under 10 at risk of getting into trouble.
- Antisocial behaviour orders to deal with serious, but not
necessarily criminal, behaviour by children aged 10 and above.
- Reparation orders to force young offenders to make amends to
the victim or the community.
- Action plan orders to tackle offending behaviour and its
- Parenting orders to require parents to attend compulsory
counselling or guidance, with fines for breaches.
- Detention and training orders to provide a flexible custodial
- Referral orders for first-time offenders who plead guilty and
do not require a custodial sentence. A contract is drawn up with
the young offender and parents to tackle the offending
Found dead in their cells
A total of 180 young people aged 21 and under have committed
suicide in prisons and YOIs since 1990. A third were aged 18 or
under, seven were aged 16, three were just 15 years old, and 15
were female. All but a handful hanged themselves. A further 19
deaths were not self-inflicted, including six homicides.
Below is a list of the young people who killed themselves in a
prison or YOI during 2003. Apart from Sarah Campbell, who took an
overdose, all hanged themselves.
- Clinton Rixon, 21, remanded, HMP Dorchester.
- Leanne Gidney, 18, convicted, HMP Brockhill.
- Sarah Campbell, 18, convicted, HMP & YOI Styal.
- Clare Parsons, 20, convicted, HMYOI Eastwood Park.
- Jennifer Clifford, 19, convicted, HMP & YOI Bullwood
- Paul Alan Watson, 20, convicted, HMYOI Castington.
- Mark McNamara, 20, convicted, HMYOI Swinfen Hall.
- Andrew Barclay, 20, convicted, HMP Norwich.
- Benjamin Townsend, 19, convicted, HMP Norwich.
- Brian Smith, 20, convicted, HMYOI Aylesbury.
- Mohammed bin Duhri, 19, HMP Belmarsh.
- Daniel Blake, 21, remanded, HMP Woodhill.
- Petra Blanksby, 19, remanded, HMP New Hall.
Two more young offenders also died in 2003: Gary Jones, 20, had
a fit while on remand at HMP Parc, and Lee David Humphreys, 21, had
a brain haemorrhage while on remand at HMP Swansea.
During 2004, the following have died:
- Philip Rustell, 19, remanded, HMP & YOI Reading.
- James Skelly, 18, convicted, HMYOI Portland.
- Sajjad Hussain, 20, remanded, HMYOI Lancaster Farms.
- Jason Wright, 20, convicted, cause of death waiting
classification, HMP Doncaster.
“He thought he was going to suffocate”
Julia Sanders* is a middle-class single parent whose 16-year-old
adopted son has already had one spell in a young offender
institution and another in a secure training centre. In the latest
incident he was arrested after an argument at home got out of
“I got Daniel* when he was one and we think the world of each
other, but over the years it has become clear that neglect in the
first 12 months of his life has left him a very damaged individual.
He doesn’t know how to deal with his anger. Just about the worst
thing to do to someone with low self-esteem like him is lock them
away in one of these ghastly institutions.
“He was sent to Huntercombe, an ex-Borstal near Henley that’s
really grim. The previous occupant of his cell had smeared it with
excrement but when my son asked for cleaning materials, none were
brought for 10 days.
“There were problems with discipline on his wing and he was
often locked up for 23 hours at a time. He was just left to his own
devices with nothing to do for days on end. The staff do their best
and there are a few highly motivated individuals but you are very
lucky if you come across one. Daniel had some sessions with a great
probation officer who was skilled in anger management but you can
wait years to get to see someone.
“When kids go into these places the first week is very scary for
them, especially the first time, but after that they move into
survival mode and the fear begins to fade. He had a spell in
Rainsbrook secure training centre where Gareth Myatt died recently
after being restrained. It frightens me because Daniel was also
restrained there and vomited while it was happening. He told me he
thought he was going to suffocate. I just think it’s outrageous to
treat children like that.
“Custody has done nothing to help my son. He has witnessed
horrendous fighting and been put in with others who have committed
armed robbery, murder – the lot. It’s just not the right way to
treat a vulnerable young person.”
*Names have been changed
“All help for the child in need disappeared
Yvonne Scholes’s son Joseph was 16 years old and nine days into
his sentence when he took his own life at Stoke Heath Young
Offender Institution in Shropshire.
Before being taken into custody he had experienced violence at
home and allegedly been raped by a member of his father’s family.
He also suffered from mental health problems including
“Because of all that, plus the fact that witnesses to the street
robbery he was involved in said he was just a bystander, it came as
a shock when he received the maximum sentence for his age and crime
after pleading guilty,” says his mother.
“We are pushing for a public inquiry into his death because we
don’t think people realise where they are sending these vulnerable
children and what they go through. We also want more done for
families. We were offered a chaplain, which we declined, and then
received no support at all. After police broke the news I was
vomiting and unable to drive to the hospital to see his body and I
had to call a family member in Manchester to come and get me.
Having talked to other families like ours I believe we are
suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Yvonne later discovered her son had torn out his own fingernails
before hanging himself. He had the word “mum” scratched onto his
“I believe my son’s case illustrates the failings of the
authorities right the way from police to social services. Joseph
changed from a victim to a criminal the moment he was sentenced and
all the help for the child in need disappeared overnight.”
Facts and figures
- The number of 15-17 year olds in prison has nearly doubled over
the last 10 years.
- England and Wales lock up more children than any other European
country, with 3,000 in prison at any one time.
- On 5 March 2004, there were 11,019 under-21s in prisons in
England and Wales, including 2,565 under-18s.
- In 1999, 80 per cent of 14-17 year olds released from prison
were reconvicted within two years.
- About 85 per cent of 16-20 year olds in prison show signs of a
personality disorder, and 10 per cent show signs of psychotic
illness such as schizophrenia.
- Almost one-third of young offenders have been in local
authority care at some point in their lives.
- More than 60 per cent of young offenders left school before
they were 16, and four in 10 have literacy levels below that of the
average seven year old.
- Nearly 30 per cent of young women in prison say they have been
- Between April 2000 and December 2002 only 279 children in
custody achieved a single GCSE, and just three passed an
- Between April 2000 and January 2002, 4,437 young offenders were
segregated, with 976 locked up alone for more than one week.
- Control and restraint techniques were used 3,615 times during
the same period.