Criminal justice charities, parliamentarians and bereaved families have united to launch a campaign to ‘End Child Imprisonment’.
The mother of a boy who hanged himself in prison after being relentlessly bullied said she would have “camped outside every single day” if she had known just how damaging an environment it was.
Liz Hardy’s 17-year-old son Jake Hardy committed suicide at Hindley Young Offenders Institution (YOI) in 2012 after bullying by other prisoners and staff left him unable to cope.
The teenager, who had mental health problems and special educational needs, had recently self-harmed and had previously been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. It was his first time in custody.
A note he left read: “So mum if you are reading this, I’m not alive as I cannot cope in prison. People keep giving me shit, even staff.”
Speaking at the launch of a campaign to ‘End Child Imprisonment’ in Parliament, Ms Hardy said the system had completely failed Jake.
“If I had known what I know now, I would have camped outside that prison,” she said. “I would have been there every single day.
“I thought he would be fed, watered, kept clean, warm… I didn’t expect prison officers to look after him like I did, but I thought he’d get the basics. My son didn’t get any of that.
“As someone who had no knowledge of young offending institutions, I didn’t learn what goes on until it was too late.
“I told Jake to keep his head down and ‘get it done son’ but this made him more vulnerable. In prison it’s who’s top dog, you’ve got to fight your way to the top to stay safe.”
Explaining how Jake took the medication Ritalin – also known as methylphenidate – Ms Hardy said: “Whenever prison officers went to his cell they called out ‘meth boy’ so the other boys thought he was a drug addict and that he was taking methadone, but he wasn’t. He stopped taking [Ritalin] because of the bullying.”
“After Jake died, I got to see the CCTV showing what happened before he had hung himself,” she added. “Other lads were crowding round his cell, goading him to kill himself. There were prison officers watching this happen. Five minutes before Jake hung himself he asked if he could ring me. They didn’t let him.”
When informed by police that Jake had died, she rang Hindley YOI which said “they didn’t have a prisoner named Jake Hardy”.
“There was no empathy, no kindness, nothing,” Ms Hardy said. “I didn’t expect them to mollycoddle Jake, but if a boy cries asking for his mum, why can’t they show some empathy and take him to an office and let him ring his mum?”
The campaign to ‘End Child Imprisonment’ is calling for children’s prisons in England – such as YOIs and secure training centres – to be closed.
Carolyne Willow, a children’s rights campaigner, said change is urgently needed as “what children go through in prison is the world turned upside-down”.
“Everything in the way we treat children affects how safe they feel – how we look at them, speak with them, be with them,” she said. “I’m reminded of the notice inspectors found in Cookham Wood YOI in 2009 – that children would be strip-searched using force if they didn’t cooperate.
“We cannot go accepting children being held in such extreme states of powerlessness in institutions designed to inflict suffering.”
In his deeply worrying annual report for 2016-17, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said he had not inspected “a single establishment in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people” and that a tragedy was waiting to happen.
In October, the Children’s Commissioner for England raised concerns about the increasing use of solitary confinement in children’s prisons, despite the number of young people in custody falling.
Dr John Chisholm, chair of the British Medical Association’s medical ethics committee, said the use of restraint, force and segregation in child prisons – which increase the risk of suicide and harm – had to be addressed as a priority.
“Children and young people who offend are amongst the most vulnerable, deprived and disadvantaged members of our society. Many have chaotic home lives characterised by violence, abuse, neglect, time spent in care, homelessness and by exclusion from mainstream education,” he said at the campaign launch.
“About 60% of those in custody have significant speech, language and learning difficulties. Over a third have a mental health disorder. Despite their high level of need, they are all too often overlooked or let down by the services designed to promote their health and wellbeing.”
For Dr Tim Bateman, deputy chair of the National Association for Youth Justice, said politicians have been wary of appearing to be soft on youth crime, but the number of children in prison has fallen by 75% in the past decade “without the world collapsing”.
“We could quite easily reduce the current population of children in prison by another 50% by preventing courts from imposing imprisonment for persistent minor offending… We could [then] start looking to transfer children to other forms of establishments which are more child-centred.”
Find out more about the campaign here.