Tragedy exposes gaps in checks of vulnerable young people in custody

The recent death of 14-year-old Adam Rickwood in Hassockfield
secure training centre, County Durham, is a startling reminder of
how many young people in prison kill themselves.

Adam became the youngest person ever to have died in custody. The
fact that he was reportedly on “suicide watch” at the time raises
questions over the effectiveness of this measure, known as
“supportive interactions and observation”.

In a young offender institution (YOI), those assessed as at very
high risk of suicide are supposed to be checked at least five times
an hour or placed under constant watch by staff. Observations
should be recorded, and those under constant observation should be
referred for a mental health assessment and have a case review
within four hours.

Children at risk of suicide in secure training centres should be
checked by staff at least every 10 minutes or placed in the health
care centre and checked regularly.

These policies may appear sound but they are not enough. Since
1990, 26 under-18s have taken their own lives while in

A mental health nurse, who used to work on a secure mental health
ward, describes the practice as hopeless. She believes observations
will not prevent someone from hanging themselves – although they
could lead to help being alerted sooner – and that it would be more
effective to have more structured time devoted to allowing
individuals at risk to talk about their problems, rather than just
monitoring them.

Yvonne Scholes, whose son Joseph also died while under observation,
describes the measures in YOIs as “absolutely ineffective”. The
pathologist at Joseph’s inquest said a child hanging would be
unconscious within 30 seconds and brain dead after four

Scholes claims no records of observation were recorded by nursing
staff so it is unclear what happened in the last hour of Joseph’s

She believes he should have been placed in a local authority secure
children’s home where there is a higher staff-to-child ratio.

Frances Crook, Howard League for Penal Reform director, says in
large YOIs there may be one staff member for 300 children at

The 18-20 age group – which is the responsibility of the Prison
Service rather than the Youth Justice Board – is also at risk. This
year, there have already been four deaths among offenders of that

Petra Blanksby, 19, was on observation when she hanged herself last
November at New Hall jail in West Yorkshire. She had attempted
suicide more than 30 times before imprisonment. Her twin, Kirsty,
believes her sister would still be alive had she been placed in a
mental health hospital.

A prison officer at a women’s prison says four officers or fewer
may be supervising a wing of 50. At any one time, about 10 of the
50 may be under observation. She reveals that, in bad weeks,
officers could cut down up to four women from ligatures.

The YJB has reviewed its policies on suicide prevention and a
spokesperson says no recommendations have been made to change
existing practices for children.

Although these procedures have undoubtedly saved many young
people’s lives, as Crook says, “the death of one child in custody
is one death too many”.

 Community Care‘s Back on Track campaign is calling
for vulnerable children to be removed from custody. Go to 

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