Out of sight, out of my mind

table football in front of barred window

For most vulnerable young people, imprisonment will compound, rather than resolve, their difficulties, confirming them in a criminal identity and turning them into the old lags of the future. 

Young offender institutions are not full of happy, healthy, well-adjusted young people. Young people in custody are much more likely than others of their own age in the community to have slept rough, used illegal drugs, engaged in hazardous drinking and become early parents. Almost half of all the children in prison will have been taken into the care of the local authority and many will have lived in children's homes. Up to 30% of young women in custody report having been sexually abused in childhood, a high proportion will have been a victim of domestic violence and many young offenders have experienced loss and untimely bereavement.

Today there are over 11,000 young people aged 15 to 20 in jail in England and Wales. Of these, almost all have a diagnosable mental disorder. Ten per cent will be suffering from a severe psychotic illness compared with 0.2% of the general population. Around two-thirds of all young prisoners experience anxiety and depression, many in response to the setting and circumstances in which they find themselves.

On every measure young offenders are in need and at risk to themselves as well as a potential risk to others. But from the time when they start offending their chances of social care, education, mental health, and drug or alcohol treatment in the community seem to fall away. In the absence of more appropriate services, magistrates and judges will pass a custodial sentence at an early stage. Far too often prison gets used as a dumping ground for young people who have been failed by other public services.

For most vulnerable young people, imprisonment will compound, rather than resolve, their difficulties, confirming them in a criminal identity and turning them into the old lags of the future. Rod Morgan, chair of the Youth Justice Board, has made it clear that young people are being ratcheted up via ASBO's or community penalties straight into prison and a future life of crime. In the words of one seventeen year old prisoner "I'm not being funny but I think the harder the prison, the more worse it turns you mentally, you know in your head". Within two years of release, more than three-quarters will have been reconvicted and almost half (47%) will be back in jail. Not surprising perhaps when you consider the impoverished state of many overcrowded young offender institutions and the lack of support for young people on release.

It does not have to be like this. Over the years report after report by the Prisons Inspectorate and independent monitoring boards of individual institutions have drawn attention to the unmet mental health needs of young people in prison. Inquiries and coroner's reports into prison deaths have shown, and will continue to show, that prison does further harm to already damaged adolescents. The fact is that in very many cases we should stop looking for solutions behind prison bars.

Across the UK there are some imaginative schemes that help young people turn their back on offending. A few, but not enough, Primary Care Trusts are running effective court diversion schemes for the mentally ill. In some areas police and probation services are working together to enable persistent young offenders to kick the addiction, which fuels so much crime. In an effort to break the cycle of crime, voluntary organisations, including the YMCA and Coram Family, are offering support to young parents who offend and then DePaul Trust is running a successful family mediation programme. Turning Point is working with young offenders with learning disabilities. Restorative Justice has taken root in Northern Ireland.

Far more still needs to be done if the Home Secretary wants to stick to government plans to reserve prison for serious and violent offenders and reduce the use of custody for the young. If John Reid needs convincing that people won't all rush to accuse the government of going soft on crime, a SmartJustice and Victim Support survey of almost 1,000 victims of crime conducted by ICM earlier this year showed that, above all, people want to find effective ways to prevent the next victim. This poll revealed that most victims do not believe that prison works to prevent non-violent crime. Instead they opted for better parental supervision of young people, more constructive activities for the young and improved drug treatment and mental healthcare for those who need it.

So, despite what we read in some of the tabloids and despite scaremongering by some politicians, it is heartening to know that most victims want, not vengeance, but humane, effective solutions to cut crime in our communities.

This article appeared in the Guardian 24 October 2006