Charles Hendry

Young offenders periodically come to the public’s attention with lurid news articles in the popular press that often misrepresent or fail to understand their complex needs. The much quoted phrase “prison works” is true, but only if we fully acknowledge that the purpose of prison is both to punish and rehabilitate.

The current government has overseen record numbers of criminals being jailed. But while we have become very good at incarcerating people, time and again we miss the opportunity to
rehabilitate prisoners, particularly young offenders.

I recently had the opportunity of presenting to parliament a private members bill that was inspired by the case of a constituent of mine. Daniel Meehan suffered from mental illness and had been in and out of prison since a teenager, but was systematically failed by the system. He never received any sustained care for his mental health needs, was transferred from one prison to another, and was even expected to arrange for his own health care. Earlier this year he committed suicide. He was only in his 20s. The coroner delivered a verdict of death by misadventure.
But Daniel’s family and I believe that neglect was a more probable cause.

My bill seeks to establish that all convicted prisoners are automatically assessed for their mental health and learning needs when they enter prison, with extra attention being provided for those who require it.

This may require the conversion of existing jails into specialist centres. But through this process proper rehabilitation could occur and offenders would have a better chance of not re-offending upon their release.

This is not an attempt to either excuse any crime or create asylums or schools that are surrounded by barbed wire. It is instead a sensible proposal to address the needs of many of those sentenced to spend time in our jails.

The statistics speak for themselves: a survey of mental ill health in the prison population of England and Wales, undertaken in 1997 by the Office for National Statistics, showed that around 90% of prisoners sampled displayed evidence of at least one of the five disorders considered in the survey (personality disorder, psychosis, neurosis, alcohol misuse and drug dependence). There will, at any one time, be about 5,000 prisoners with a severe mental illness.

The situation for young offenders is even more  acute. Research by Oxford University analysing suicide rates in England and Wales from 1978 to 2003 found that 15- to 17-year-old offenders were 18 times  more likely to kill themselves than those in the general prison population. Depressingly, the report concluded that “half those who commit suicide in prison have a treatable mental illness”.

The situation is mirrored in the statistics for prisoners with learning needs. More than half of prisoners had the reading ability of an 11-year-old or lower, with that proportion rising to 67% among young offenders. In relation to numeracy skills, 69% among the general prison population had the ability of an 11-year-old or lower, rising to 78% among young offenders.

I have visited many young offender institutions in my time and find them the most depressing of places. I know that some YOIs have piloted schemes to better address the needs of their inmates, but I think it is time we faced up to the fact that improvements have to be made across the whole system.

Rehabilitation is key, nowhere more so than among those with mental health problems and learning needs. This is especially true for young offenders – who still have their whole lives ahead of them – if they are to have the chance to make good the mistakes they have made in the past. 

Charles Hendry is MP for Wealden and shadow minister for energy,science and technology

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