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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Monday, 4 December 2006, 16:34 GMT
Risk to UK's young prisoners
Child custody rates in England and Wales are among the highest Western Europe. Since 1993 the number of 15 to 17 year olds in custody has risen by 90%; the number of under 14 year olds detained has gone up 800%. Jackie Long looks at what being a child in custody can mean.

By Jackie Long
BBC Newsnight

Joseph Scholes
Joseph Scholes killed himself after just nine days in prison

While other boys would play, Joseph Scholes would often sit slashing at his skin with knives or scissors. He would drive blades into his toes until the nails went septic and once cut his nose so badly the bone was exposed.

That Joseph was a boy who struggled with life was obvious to everyone. But it was just nine days in prison that finally broke him.

He was found hanging from the bars of Stoke Heath Young Offenders Institution a few weeks after his sixteenth birthday.

Of all the catalogue of problems common to young offenders, Joseph had pretty much suffered them all. Sexual abuse, drugs, alcohol, depression and family breakdown. But by any standard, he was not a persistent offender.

He had one conviction for affray. When he was later convicted of a mobile phone robbery, the judge accepted he had never been violent.

But the timing was bad for Joseph.

High risk

The courts were determined to deal severely with young street robbers and Joseph was given a two year detention and training order and sent to Stoke Heath.

Doctors and social workers had all warned the court there was a high risk of Joseph trying to kill himself if he was sent to prison. And just over a week after arriving, Joseph Scholes did exactly that.

Reconstruction: child in prison
The UK jails around 3,000 10-17 years old each year
Joseph was one of 29 young boys who have died in custody since 1990. The majority were suicides.

There are many other boys with problems like Joseph in custody.

A third of all young offenders aged between 10 and 17 have some form of mental health problem. And self harm is a regular occurrence. There were more than thirteen hundred incidents of self harm by young people in custody over just one 11 month period last year.

Disturbed

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, says prisons are struggling to cope.

"In prisons you see young people who are so seriously mentally ill that they are being constantly watched by staff who do nothing but watch them, to try to make sure they don't take their own lives. You see children who are so disturbed that force is having to be used on them sometimes with the consequence that they break bones."

We need to look at alternatives to custody which can address the reasons why they offend in the first place.
Deborah Coles, Inquest
Even among prison reformers this is not an argument against custody for some child offenders.

But it is, they say, evidence of the desperate need for a thorough review of why the UK locks up around 3,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 17 every year.

Vulnerable children

Deborah Coles, the co-director of the pressure group, Inquest, says, "We need to look at the way we treat vulnerable children in custody, issues around the high level of restraint used against children. We need to look at alternatives to custody which can address the reasons why they offend in the first place."

The prison service points to many improvements made since 1998 including 50m on accommodation, a new placements system and a suicide prevent strategy.

Five more boys have died in custody since Joseph's death in 2002.

Pam Wilton
Pam Wilton's 15-year-old son died in custody
Gareth Myatt was just 15 when he died after being restrained by three officers at a secure training centre. The inquest into his death is due to take place in February.

His mother, Pam Wilton, says there is little sympathy for women like her.

The mother of a young offender, she says she knows many people think she and her son simply got what they deserved. She has just one question for them.

"Why is it right for my son to go in there and not come back out? No matter what he did he should have come back out of there."


Jackie Long's report on young offenders can be seen on Monday 4 December 2006 on Newsnight at 2230GMT on BBC Two and on the Newsnight website.

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