Leading Article: Suicide message to politicians

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FOUR years ago, Philip Knight was detained in Swansea jail. Although he was only 15 and had twice previously slit his wrists, the authorities considered it acceptable to send him to an adult prison. Shortly afterwards, Philip killed himself. Shock at his death drew attention to the despair that many young offenders feel in prison. His case was expected to produce significant changes in their treatment.

The results have been disappointing. The Government is to ban use of adult prisons for boys aged 15 and 16 on remand from 1995. A prison service suicide prevention programme was set up and the Samaritans offered advice on spotting inmates who were at risk.

Yet since then dozens more teenagers have taken their lives in prison service establishments, mostly young offender institutions. Typically, they have been found hanging from makeshift scaffolds or bars by strips of cloth, sheet or dungaree straps. Their suicide notes speak of hopelessness, confusion and depression. At the present rate, this year will see a record number of deaths. So far, as we report today, 11 people aged 20 or under have committed suicide in jail.

These figures only hint at the trauma that some teenagers experience in custody. Hundreds more mutilate themselves. Bullying is rife. Many inmates face a choice between being attacked and robbed by gangs or staying all day in their cells. Their experience challenges those who contend that young offenders enjoy a holiday- camp lifestyle.

Reports of suicides in penal institutions now seem as perennial as the discovery of child abuse in children's homes. Indeed, those who take their lives have often suffered the privations of such homes.

Against this background, plans to begin building five privately run secure units next year to hold persistent offenders aged between 12 and 14 are at best worrying. The state's record when acting in loco parentis is so poor that it is difficult to trust the authorities. Families will often find themselves far away from the units. There is a danger that inmates will become emotionally isolated unless given exceptional care. The onus should be on ministers to prove that these units will be humane and not merely act as smaller versions of today's grim young offender institutions.

Both Labour and the Tories have been quick to advocate a tougher approach to juvenile offending. This is in response to understandable public demands that persistent offenders should be taken out of circulation. However, politicians often fail to point out that recorded juvenile crime has fallen, not risen, in recent years.

The results of populist rhetoric are becoming apparent. The number of juveniles held on remand has doubled since 1992. A rising suicide rate may be related to these changes. If the trend is to be reversed, politicians should give as much attention to challenging the conditions of juvenile custody as they have already lavished on the problems of youth crime.