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Disturbing case of young offender goes to European court

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) will this week hear claims from the British government that locking-up an emotionally disturbed young man and failing to prevent him from inflicting terrible self-harm does not merit an independent, public inquiry.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has taken the case of P to Europe after British courts ruled there was no need to hold an inquiry because, while the risk to P's life was real, it was not immediate.

P was taken into care after his mother injected him with heroin when he was 11 months old. By 18, he was using drugs, was in and out of prison and hurting himself. During the 15 months he spent on remand at Feltham Young Offenders Institution, P needed hospital treatment nearly 100 times for self-inflicted injuries using screws, razors and broken glass he claims some officers provided. He inserted staples into his face; put sharp objects into his penis; forced pieces of glass into his urethra; rubbed faeces into wounds; and severed the tendons in his feet.

While medical doctors were in no doubt his self-harm was "indicative of an extremely disturbed mindset", psychiatrists could not agree on his diagnosis or treatment.

Chris Callender, the legal director of the Howard League, says the state's failure to protect mentally ill P nearly cost him his life, and his treatment at Feltham was inhumane and degrading: "The Government must investigate in order for lessons to be learnt."

P's mental health is improving since a court ordered his transfer to a secure hospital in June 2008. Now 23, he wants to understand why he was punished for hurting himself and to stop it from happening to others.

The ECHR could recommend, but not order, the Government to carry out an inquiry as early as next spring. The Ministry of Justice declined to comment.