Prisons are failing to protect vulnerable children - we urgently need a public inquiry

The death of Jake Hardy is one that we cannot ignore

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The Independent Online

Who protected Jake Hardy, a highly vulnerable 17 year-old suffering from ADHD and dyslexia and needing mental health support? Certainly not those prison officers at Hindley Young Offenders Institution who failed to listen to his anguished pleas for help from constant bullying. Certainly not the prison that an inquest jury last week found responsible for 12 critical failures that contributed to Jake hanging himself with a bedsheet.  And certainly not a youth justice system that imprisons children in institutions in which bullying, serious self-harm and suicide are worryingly prevalent.

There are two ways to view what happened to Jake Hardy. First, that it was an aberration. However, the sheer extent of the safeguarding failures that emerged during the six-week inquest dispels the complacent notion that Jake’s treatment was unique. 

An alarming pattern of failure

Second, therefore, we need to evaluate this deeply troubling case in its proper context: a youth justice system in which there have been 33 deaths of children since 1990. A system where the mechanisms to safeguard young people from self-harm and bullying miserably fail, as evidenced by a succession of critical jury findings and coroner reports, revealing a pattern of systemic failures that repeat with alarming regularity.

In a warning last Sunday, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons urged Ministers to investigate why in 2013-14 there was a sudden rise in self-inflicted deaths across the prison estate to 89 - the highest figure for 10 years. Further, INQUEST’s figures reveal that deaths in 2014 are thus far double the previous year’s.  Something is going badly wrong in our prisons.

Jake’s case cautions us that it’s inadequate to speak of rotten apples and lack of resources, of demoralised staff and officers unqualified to care for vulnerable children.  All these certainly play a part. 

But we must never lose sight of the kind of prisons we have created. Prisons are intrinsically complex and problematic institutions. That is inevitable. What is not inevitable is the brutal and brutalising nature of our prisons, a picture that shockingly emerged during the Hardy inquest.

Governmental vindictiveness

And what about beyond the prison walls?  What is not inevitable is the unnecessarily vindictive way in which parts of this Government speak about prisons and prisoners.  Such messages seep into the culture. They are irresponsible and damaging. They impede efforts to make custody more humane.  They make prisons more dangerous. 

What is particularly tragic about Jake Hardy’s death is its sheer preventability.  In 2007 an inquest was held into the death of Gareth Myatt, a 15 year-old child who died when physically restrained by three prison officers at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre.  One of the chief lessons the presiding judge brought to the attention of the Justice Secretary was the urgent need to ‘listen to voice of the child’. Yet five years later, this is what Jake Hardy wrote about the bullying he was suffering shortly before he hanged himself: ‘I told the staff and they did not do nothing about the problem. So Mum if you’re reading this, I’m not alive because I can’t cope with people giving me shit, even the staff.’

It is too late for us to protect Jake Hardy. But we must do much more to protect the hundreds of highly vulnerable young people in custody, whose lives are blighted by mental health problems, addiction, abuse and trauma.  The proper protective measures - and the humane institutional culture needed to breathe life into them - cannot any longer be left to the state to determine. Time and again the state has shown itself incapable of adequately protecting young people and children.

Exploding the myth

In February Lord Toby Harris was commissioned to hold an independent review into the custodial deaths of young adults aged 18 to 24. That is welcome. What is less welcome – and utterly incomprehensible – is the arbitrary exclusion of children from the Harris Inquiry remit. The Youth Justice Board claims to be ‘learning the lessons’ from the deaths of detained children.  But recent history tell us that we can have little confidence in the state marking its own homework.  As the parents of some of the 33 children poignantly argue, it is inconceivable that similar deaths in any other childcare setting would not have triggered an exhaustive independent review. Consequently, there is an urgent need for a public inquiry now.

Jake Hardy’s case explodes the myth that children in custody are safeguarded in a way that those aged 18 and over are not. He was a 17 year-old in the care of the state. Every warning sign about his vulnerability starkly evident. He was systematically failed.  He killed himself. The inquiry must be independent and in depth and examine what is being done to detained children in our name. We need to rethink how we treat children in conflict with the law. We need to invest in alternatives to custody that combat the reasons for offending. And for once, the next step is clear and within our grasp.

The death of Jake Hardy is a warning. One we cannot ignore.

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