Deaths of children and young people

Following extensive lobbying from INQUEST, in February 2014 the Justice Secretary announced an independent review into self-inflicted deaths in National Offender Management Service custody of 18-24 year olds. The review was led by Lord Toby Harris, Chair of the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP), and was supported by the expertise of other IAP members including INQUEST's co-director Deborah Coles.

A primary demand made by INQUEST was the proper involvement of families which would enable a wider systemic analysis of the issues underlying the deaths of children and young people in prison. INQUEST remains disappointed that children were excluded from the review, particularly as many show similar vulnerabilities to young prisoners and would still be in the criminal justice system at the age of 18-24 years.

Alongside its submission to the Lord Harris Review into the Self-inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18-24 year olds, INQUEST has produced a series of evidence based reports on the topic. In 2012 INQUEST and the Prison Reform Trust published Fatally Flawed: has the state learned lessons from the deaths of children and young people in prison and in 2015 INQUEST published Stolen Lives and Missed opportunities: The deaths of young adults and children in prison

Our reports have revealed a litany of systemic neglect, institutional complacency and shortsighted policies which have contributed to the deaths of children and young people. These deaths are the most extreme outcome of a system that fails some of society’s most disadvantaged children and young people.

The number of deaths is high because prison is overused as the societal solution to a range of social problems that need to be addressed elsewhere. Many young people were failed by a range of social and welfare services well before they entered custody. Prison is an ineffective and expensive intervention that doesn’t work as revealed by the high reconviction rates.

Fatally Flawed was a comprehensive report which documented INQUEST’s extensive casework on the 143 deaths of children and young people (aged 24 years old or younger) between 2003 and 2010 and included individual stories outlining the experiences of some of the children and young people who have died.

The subsequent report, Stolen Lives and Missed Opportunities continued previous research by collating evidence about the deaths of 65 young and child prisoners between 2011 and 2014, drawing on a unique dataset to illustrate the extreme vulnerabilities of these groups - many which were care leavers and suffering from acute mental health issues, early life trauma and special educational needs.

Evidence from INQUEST’s casework has shown that children and 18-24 year olds who have died in custody had commonly experienced multiple disadvantage and typically had complex needs such as histories of substance misuse, mental health difficulties, learning disabilities and self-harm. INQUEST believes a joined-up approach should be adopted to preventing the deaths of children and young people.

Recent cases have highlighted: the inadequate care of individuals with mental ill health; a lack of communication between agencies; and a failure of individual institutions to learn from deaths. For example, the recent inquests into the deaths of Steven Davison, Reece Taylor and Billy Spiller have highlighted the inadequacy of the Prison Service’s response to individuals with a risk of self-harm or suicide.

The deaths of children in custody has been an area of concern for INQUEST since the death of 15 year old Philip Knight in Swansea prison in 1990 and in 2005 INQUEST published the first uniquely detailed analysis of these deaths: In The Care Of The State? (by Professor Barry Goldson and Deborah Coles). It called for an abolition of prison custody for children, a comprehensive review of child deaths that could apply the learning gleaned from such a review and a public inquiry into the death of 16 year old Joseph Scholes.

INQUEST also has ongoing concerns about the high levels of restraint used on children in custody. Two cases in particular that have raised serious concerns are 14 year old Adam Rickwood, who took his own life in Hassockfield Secure Training Centre (STC) shortly after being restrained by staff; and 15 year old Gareth Myatt who died following the use of a controversial method of physical control at Rainsbrook STC. INQUEST has worked with the NSPCC and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) on a joint campaign to end the use of pain compliance restraint techniques against children in custody, resulting in revisions to the use of force on children in custody. Despite the clear dangers associated with its use on children and young people, the use of restraint has risen considerably in recent times (see the Justice Committee’s report of its year-long inquiry into youth justice).

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