The Howard League for Penal Reform’s submission to the Independent Review into Self-Inflicted Deaths in NOMS Custody of 18-24 year olds

The Howard League for Penal Reform welcomes the opportunity to engage in Lord Harris’ review. The review is a unique opportunity for expert scrutiny of systemic failings in the penal system that have culminated in the tragic deaths of so many young adults in custody.

This inquiry is the only opportunity to examine the wider context surrounding young adults in prison. Inquests and inquiries have hitherto only considered their treatment in prison that immediately led to death but no one has asked the critical question about whether they should have been in prison in the first place. From the inquest and inquiry into the murder of Zahid Mubarek to the death of Greg Revell a couple of weeks ago, the question about the remand and sentencing decisions and practices of the courts need to be questioned as a contributory factor that led directly murder and suicide. Far too many young men are remanded and sentenced to prison unnecessarily and unless an independent inquiry looks at the route into custody as well as the treatment whilst inside, the problem will not be solved and lives will continue to be lost.

The Howard League for Penal Reform believes that there are too many young adults in prison who should not be there at all. The crime rate continues to fall. While the child custody population has fallen by two-thirds since 2008, there has only been a minimal fall in the number of young adults in prison. It is critical that we build on the successes for children across the system by ensuring that a different approach is taken for young adults from the first point of contact with the police to sentencing.

Summary of submission

Many young adults face avoidable problems in prison that may increase the likelihood of suicide. Despite claims from the Ministry of Justice as to the need for prisoners to make use of their time, most young adults are cooped up for excessive periods of time each day with nothing to do. The inadequate provision of meaningful or, indeed, any activity at all for this group is exacerbated by the hopelessness caused by the new incentives and privileges regime. The scheme, introduced in November 2013, makes it impossible for most prisoners to be rewarded for good behaviour or motivation. Others are paralysed by violence, racism, homophobia and insufficient interventions to meet their needs or allow them to progress in prison.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has identified a number of warning signs that we believe should trigger anxious scrutiny of a young person’s well being. When young people with mental health problems, learning difficulties, histories of abuse and victimization are sent to prison the authorities should not use segregation but should make sure that young people benefit from monitoring and support for their own safety. The caseload of our legal team shows that too many vulnerable teenagers are subjected to adjudications and physical interventions in prison. When the state takes a young person into its care, it must adhere to the highest standards to protect and safeguard them and to enable them to flourish.

Finally, we believe that even where young people’s needs and concerns are known, the current system is inadequate. Disciplinary processes are used inappropriately to deal with issues of profound concern. Measures to monitor risk of self-harm are not sensitive or tailored to the needs of individuals and are not meaningful. Safeguarding procedures for young adults are virtually non-existent.

You can read the full submission here