Young offender deaths at record level: Penal welfare groups warn that suicides in jails will continue to increase unless action is taken. Jason Bennetto reports

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The Independent Online
A RECORD number of young offenders - people aged 20 and under - have committed suicide in jail so far this year and the total for 1994 is set to become the highest ever recorded.

Since January, 11 people have hanged themselves in custody in Britain, figures obtained by the Independent show. The youngest was 17 and most were locked up at young offenders' institutions. Five were on remand awaiting trial for minor offences such as car theft.

Penal welfare groups have warned the deaths will continue to rise unless urgent action is taken.

Reformers blame pressure on inmates caused by the rising jail population, expected to exceed 50,000 in the next few weeks.

There is particular alarm at the sudden rise in prison suicides among the young because the number of deaths had dropped in recent years.

The mother of one teenager who killed himself while on remand said: 'I can't believe the authorities are allowing this to go on. Before my son died he wrote a letter in prison saying he was just going around in circles and that he was no good to anybody. He had only been in prison for six hours.'

So far this year, five people have committed suicide in young offenders' institutes, one in a remand centre and five in adult jails. The highest previous total for the first three quarters of the year was seven. The record number of deaths in England, Wales, and Scotland for a year was 13 in 1989.

There have been 40 deaths in penal institutions in Britain so far this year. The total has been rising since the mid-Eighties when the average was about 25.

Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, which monitors deaths in custody, said: 'The scandal of youth suicides bears chilling testimony to the consequences of sending young people to prison and are a symptom of the disgraceful state of the country's prisons and of its penal policy. If also reflects the dismal failure of the prison service to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

'For many young people prison is a frightening and traumatic experience, characterised by bleak and austere regimes, that creates and exacerbates suicidal feelings.

'The most effective suicidal prevention policy is one that dramatically reduces the number of people sent to prison and provides a more humane and active regime.'

Penal reformers yesterday warned of more suicides under the government plans to build five privately run 'mini jails' or secure training centres for perisistent young offenders. Each centre will hold 40 offenders, aged 12 to 14. Opponents argue that imprisonment is so traumatic for young people that suicides will increase.

On a visit to a young offenders' institute, Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, found inmates with scars on their arms where they had cut themselves with glass.

'The Home Secretary is saying that prison works and is whipping up a blood lust for locking up young people who are crying out for something constructive to be done,' she said.

'The secure training centres will add further to the problem. Simply locking up youngsters is surely not the solution. They will be frightened and lonely and can only lead to further disasters.'

A spokesman for the Prison Service said: 'There can sometimes be no warning or indication that a person is going to take their life. It is a matter of great concern to us. We are committed to providing a standard of care that will help to reduce the number of incidents of self-harm and suicide. There's no proven link between overcrowding and suicide,' he added.

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