Health fears for teenage offenders

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The Independent Online
NEARLY 1,000 teenagers held in young offenders' institutions are believed to be suffering from psychiatric problems, but only one adolescent psychiatrist is employed by the Prison Service to help them.

New research released yesterday by Sir David Ramsbotham, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, reveals that 46 per cent of offenders aged between 15 and 17 were assessed as having psychiatric disorders. Nearly one in five had deliberately inflicted injuries on themselves. But only one of the 24 institutions which hold such young people has a psychiatrist to treat them.

The study, carried out at the Portland Young Offenders' Institution in Dorset, was published in Sir David's annual report yesterday. It showed that eight out of ten had failed to attain any formal educational qualifications. One in five had been disowned by their parents before the age of 15 and 34 per cent lived on their own, or with friends. Only 18 per cent lived with their natural parents.

Sir David said: "I question whether any society can feel proud or easy about these statistics."

Dr Peter Misch, the only adolescent psychiatrist working for the prison service, said that Feltham YOI in west London was dealing with 50 young people a year with severe mental illness. "They should be sent to psychiatric hospitals, but because of the lack of beds they are actually sent to prison."

He said that young people with psychiatric problems frequently resorted to self-cutting, mutilation and starting fires. "The most common thing is to put nooses around their necks and make hanging attempts," he said.

The criticisms may fall on deaf ears at the Home Office, where sources indicated that prisons were "well down the priority list". The issue could lead to a confrontation between Sir David and the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, who has warned Sir David to stick to his prisons remit and not to interfere in matters relating to the Crime and Disorder Bill.

In his report, Sir David says that high-security dispersal prisons do not have enough money to conduct programmes of work, training and offending behaviour courses.

Sir David also condemns a lack of preparation for prisoners' release. But he is pleased that the service, albeit with limited resources, is allowed to make greater efforts at rehabilitation.