Shine A Light

Abolish child prisons, demands mother who lost her son

UK charities, parliamentarians and bereaved families unite to close child prisons. Inspection reports call all such institutions unsafe.

Hardeep Matharu
4 December 2018
White sign saying, Medway Secure Training Centre

Medway Secure Training Centre in Kent was the first child prison to open in the UK in 1998. Over the years many allegations of abuse, excessive use of force and heavy restraint on children have been made against staff. Medway was run by G4S until July 2016. Image taken 8 January 2016 by Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/PA Images

A coalition of charities with decades of collective experience working with bereaved families and locked up children has launched a campaign to close child prisons in the UK. 

The campaign to ‘End Child Imprisonment’ is spearheaded by six charities: Article 39, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, the Howard League for Penal Reform, INQUEST, Just For Kids Law, and the National Association for Youth Justice.

At the launch in Parliament last month, Liz Hardy explained what happened to her son Jake, who was found dead in his cell at Hindley Young Offenders Institution (YOI) in 2012 after bullying by other prisoners and staff left him unable to cope. He was 17. 

Jake, who had mental health problems and special educational needs, had recently self-harmed and had previously been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. It was his first time in custody.

He had left a note for his mother: “So mum if you are reading this, I’m not alive as I cannot cope in prison. People keep giving me shit, even staff.”

Mum, if you are reading this, I’m not alive as I cannot cope in prison. People keep giving me shit, even staff.

Liz Hardy said the system had completely failed Jake.

“If I had known what I know now, I would have camped outside that prison,” she said. “I would have been there every single day.”  

“I thought he would be fed, watered, kept clean, warm and that he would have a nice bed to sleep in and that the basics would be there, I didn’t expect prison officers to look after him like I did, but I thought he’d get the basics. My son didn’t get any of that. 

“As someone who had no knowledge of young offending institutions, I didn’t learn what goes on until it was too late.”

She said Jake, who constantly complained of being hungry, didn’t know how to cope with the bullying and isolated himself, but this made him more of a target.

“I told Jake to keep his head down and ‘get it done son’ but this made him more vulnerable,” Liz Hardy said. “He isolated himself. In prison it’s who’s top dog, you’ve got to fight your way to the top to stay safe. It wasn’t until after Jake died that I found out he had been taken to hospital by the prison because he had heart palpitations.”

Explaining how Jake needed to take the medication Ritalin — also known as methylphenidate — Hardy said: “Whenever prison officers went to his cell, they called out ‘meth boy’ so the other boys thought he was a drug addict and that he was taking methadone, but he wasn’t. He stopped taking Ritalin because of the bullying.”

“After Jake died, I got to see the CCTV recording showing what happened before he had hung himself,” she said. “Other lads were crowding round his cell, goading him to kill himself. There were prison officers watching this happen. Five minutes before Jake hung himself he asked if he could ring me. They didn’t let him. 

Five minutes before Jake died he asked if he could ring me. They didn’t let him

“When I saw inside Jake’s cell I couldn’t believe it. There was a metal single bed, a toilet in the corner and a desk he had smashed to smithereens. The cell was about 6ft by 6ft and there was a plastic window with bars in front. This is how Jake managed to hang himself.”

When the police informed her Jake had died, she rang Hindley YOI which said “they didn’t have a prisoner named Jake Hardy”.

“There was no empathy, no kindness, nothing,” Liz Hardy said. “At the inquest there was an officer who said Jake was a very spoilt boy who never knew the word ‘no’... They took one look at Jake and thought because he was a big lad he could handle himself. I didn’t expect them to mollycoddle Jake, but if a boy cries asking for his mum, why can’t they show some empathy and take him to an office and let him ring his mum?”

No child prison in England and Wales safe for young people

The campaign to ‘End Child Imprisonment’ is calling for children’s prisons in England – such as YOIs and secure training centres – to be closed.

At the launch, children’s rights campaigner Carolyne Willow, said change is urgently needed as “what children go through in prison is the world turned upside-down”.

What children go through in prison is the world turned upside-down

“Everything in the way we treat children affects how safe they feel — how we look at them, speak with them, be with them,” she said.

“I’m reminded of the notice inspectors found in Cookham Wood YOI in 2009 — the notice read that children would be strip-searched using force if they didn’t cooperate.

“We cannot go accepting children being held in such extreme states of powerlessness in institutions designed to inflict suffering.”

In his damning and deeply worrying annual report for 2016-17, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said he had not inspected “a single establishment in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people” and that a tragedy was waiting to happen.

In October, the Children’s Commissioner for England raised concerns about the increasing use of solitary confinement in children’s prisons in recent years, despite the number of young people in custody falling.

Dr John Chisholm, chair of the British Medical Association’s medical ethics committee, also spoke at the launch. He said “welfare-based and rehabilitation-focused” alternatives to children’s prisons have to be the way forward, in contrast to the violent institutions that currently exist. Health-related human rights of young people also need to be recognised.

“Children and young people who offend are amongst the most vulnerable, deprived and disadvantaged members of our society. Many have chaotic home lives characterised by violence, abuse, neglect, time spent in care, homelessness and by exclusion from mainstream education.

Children and young people who offend are amongst the most vulnerable, deprived and disadvantaged members of our society

“About 60 per cent of those in custody have significant speech, language and learning difficulties. Over a third have a mental health disorder. Despite their high level of need, they are all too often overlooked or let down by the services designed to promote their health and wellbeing. The inevitable result is further deprivation and increase in marginalisation. Yet, the state is legally obliged to protect and safeguard the wellbeing of children and young people.”

He said that addressing practices such as the use of restraint, force and segregation on children in prisons – all of which increase the risk of suicide, self-harm and long-term harm without improving behaviour or addressing underlying cases – has to be a government priority.

For Dr Tim Bateman, deputy chair of the National Association for Youth Justice, the government’s renewed focus on “secure schools” will not provide effective educational environments for the extremely vulnerable children ending up in the criminal justice system.

“Many of the children in prison are so damaged and their needs so extensive that high-quality care and emotional support, building-up trust and therapeutic intervention are required before children are educationally ready,” he said at the campaign launch.

“It’s clear that prisons are becoming consistently violent year on year and environments that rely more and more on physical restraint and segregation.”

Dr Bateman said an incremental approach to ending child imprisonment would result in change, and successful steps have already been taken to divert young people away from prison.

“Politicians have historically been very wary of appearing to be soft on youth crime and child imprisonment is a way of demonstrating that you’re tough on youth crime,” he said. “Allied to that is politicians who claim the public is also fairly tough on youth crime… But we know that it’s quite possible to see substantial shifts in the use of imprisonment without the world collapsing.

Nearly half of all imprisoned children are black or from another ethnic minority

“The number of children in custody in the last 10 years has fallen by 75 per cent and much of the public and politicians have not seemed to have noticed that much. We could quite easily reduce the current population of children in prison by another 50 per cent by preventing courts from imposing imprisonment for persistent minor offending. If we get the numbers down to that kind of level, we could start looking to transfer children to other forms of establishments which are more child-centred.”

At least four in 10 children in prison have been in care, have special educational needs or were eligible for free school meals. Disproportionately, almost half of those imprisoned are black or ethnic minorities. Nearly one-third have mental health problems.

You can read more about the End Child Imprisonment campaign here.


Hardeep Matharu is a justice and social affairs journalist, writer and researcher.

Edited by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi from Hardeep Matharu’s original article first published on Byline. You can read Hardeep’s Byline column on prisons and criminal justice here, and follow her on Twitter @Hardeep_Matharu




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