Law: Rough justice for juveniles

Despite an outcry after the suicide of a 15-year-old boy, the number of young people remanded to adult prisons continues to rise. Now there is pressure to end the practice before another tragedy strikes. Robert Verkaik reports
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It has been six years since 15-year-old Philip Knight hanged himself in Swansea prison while awaiting sentence for stealing a handbag. He took his own life after spending just two weeks incarcerated in an adult prison because no local authority secure accommodation was available.

The public outcry that followed Philip Knight's death forced the Government to introduce legislation to end the practice of remanding juveniles in adult prisons. But just two years after Philip's death, juvenile remands into custody had already started to steadily increase. The latest figures show that since 1992 there has been an increase of 72 per cent, culminating in 1,889 16- and 15-year-olds being remanded into prison custody last year.

Like Philip Knight many of these boys (the practice of remanding juvenile girls into prison custody ended in 1979) are not serving sentences but awaiting a fair trial. By the time Philip Knight was found guilty of theft and sent back to prison, the psychological damage had already been done.

Many criminal justice care workers now believe that if the practice of remanding 15- and 16-year-olds into prison custody is not stopped soon another tragedy is inevitable. Last week a 15-year-old boy took a near fatal drugs overdose after being remanded to Feltham Detention Centre instead of local authority care, and in the same week another boy, remanded to Rochester Prison, was allegedly subjected to sexual advances.

Paul Cavadino is chair of the Penal Affairs Consortium, an alliance of 31 organisations including the Howard League, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) and the National Association of Probation Officers. The consortium recently carried out a report into juveniles on remand. Mr Cavadino warns: "Everyone working in the penal system regards the holding of remanded juveniles in prison as indefensible."

The report points out that young boys held in adult prisons or remand centres are not emotionally equipped to deal with a much harsher system of imprisonment than local authority-run secure accommodation. Intimidation and bullying, the report said, were the two most likely reasons for boys harming themselves.

Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, noted in 1989: "In many ways these youngsters have less in common with young men in their late teens than is generally realised. They are often despised by the older group, resented for their childishness and become victims of intimidation." Judge Tumim has said that the number of juveniles held in the prison service was the "most disturbing aspect" to emerge from his inspections.

Of the 1,889 15- and 16-year-olds who were remanded into prison custody last year, more than half did not receive a prison sentence when they were finally dealt with by the court.

If everyone agrees that prison is no place for a young person why has the problem got worse and not better?

Paul Cavadino believes they are victims of a new "harsh climate" which has followed media coverage of isolated cases of extreme criminal behaviour in the young - such as "rat boy" who lived in the ventilation shaft of a tower block from where he burgled flats. This has been contrasted with the so-called "holiday punishments" of safaris and cruises.

Mr Cavadino also believes the Home Office policy of "prison works" has led to guidelines being sent to courts which, although intended to target adult offenders, have encouraged some magistrates to remand juveniles in prison.

The Law Society, which backs the consortium's view on ending juvenile remands, advises solicitors to help magistrates avoid remanding juveniles into custody. Diane Burleigh, head of court business at the society, says: "Prison is one of the worst ways possible of dealing with young people. Solicitors are daily having to try to explain to magistrates just how dreadful it is." Ultimately, says Ms Burleigh, the responsibility must lie with the Government for not providing sufficient care places.

Nacro has initiated the establishment of a working party on juvenile remand chaired by the former prisoners minister, Sir Peter Lloyd, and representing key agencies in the criminal justice system. Its findings are due to be published shortly. Rob Allen, director of policy at Nacro, says the aim of the working party is to produce a code of practice which will help courts find ways to keep the number of remanded juveniles as low as possible.

He believes those juveniles who are only freed from prison when they get to trial, through acquittal or sentence, are being done an even greater injustice. "This does not detract from the fact that the conditions, all boys of this age are kept in, are very damaging," adds Mr Allen.

Although the Government has introduced provisions, contained in the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which would bring an end to all remands of juveniles into prison custody, these have yet to be carried out.

The legislation is wholly dependent upon a sufficient number of secure accommodation places being available before it can be implemented.

In April of this year there were only 274 secure places, compared with 295 in 1993.

The Government has been scrambling to get back on track ever since the Act was passed and regularly revises its estimate as to how many places will be finally needed to bring an end to prison custodial remands for juveniles.

In 1991 it thought 35 secure places would be enough, changing this to 65 and then 100 in 1994. The Penal Affairs Consortium has called upon the Government to announce a specified date on which such remands will cease.

Although a Home Office spokeswoman confirmed the Government was committed to ending this practice, she said it had no date in mind.

She added: "Through the Department of Health there is funding for a 170- place expansion programme. The first places came on stream in 1995 and another block comes on stream this year and the balance will be provided by mid-1997."

The Home Office stresses that it is for the courts to decide when it is necessary to remand a young person and that the prison service does try to take special care of youngsters remanded into their custody.

She said: "Juveniles who are remanded into prison service custody are placed in appropriate remand centres which hold accused persons under 21. It's only when that type of accommodation isn't available that they are held in local prisons with unconvicted adults."

But members of the consortium feel that under-21 remand centres, such as Feltham, are just as harmful to a 15-year-old boy who is not yet old enough legally to leave school.