Stolen lives, missed opportunities: deaths of young people in prison

Jenifer Phillips
3 Mar 2015

Inquest and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, as part of the work of the Transition to Adulthood Alliance, have published a new report that looks into the circumstances behind the recent deaths of children and young adults in custody.

On average more than one young person has taken their life in prison across England and Wales every month. The report calls for a compete overhaul of the way young offenders are treated, most particularly those who are most vulnerable.

65 children, young people and young adults died in custody in the 48 months between January 2011 and December 2014. The report found 54 of these deaths were classified as self-inflicted.

Of those who died, 70 per cent had mental health issues including diagnoses of personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and unresolved issues relating to childhood bereavement or abuse. 49 per cent had self-harmed previously.

Around one third had been in care or lived away from their family, nearly a quarter had a learning disability and 34 per cent had substance misuse problems.

Key recommendations

Some of the key recommendations are:

  • A significant reduction in the use of custodial sentences, they should be a last resort.
  • Where custody is used it should be in smaller prison units, with a focus on therapeutic support.
  • Funding should be available for crime prevention.
  • There should be a greater focus on community support for those convicted of minor offences and who have mental health problems and substance abuse issues.
  • There should be better training among staff in the secure estate in recognising and supporting vulnerable young offenders
  • There needs to be a more focused crackdown on bullying and more targeted support for vulnerable young offenders during their first weeks in custody.
  • Where there has been a death of a young person in custody, families should automatically qualify for free legal representation at inquests.


The report concludes:

The countless stories of young adults who took their lives in prison show that such deaths are not isolated cases but part of a deeply worrying pattern.

Time and again systems set up to safeguard children and young adults fail miserably. There have been an array of critical outcomes from the investigation and inquest processes into these deaths that demonstrate where the proper protective measures and institutional culture that should protect young adults from human rights abuses have repeatedly failed.

Prison is an ineffective and expensive intervention that does not work, as demonstrated by the high reconviction rates. It fails both victims and communities.

The prison system is a repository for some of the most disadvantaged groups in society and failed education, social care and healthcare policies. There needs to be a radical re-think of how we treat young adults in conflict with the law.

To ignore this serious human rights issue means the tragic loss of young lives will continue to put to shame our prison system and society."

Further information

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