AN INDEPENDENT report into the troubling number of imprisoned young adults who have taken their own lives has prompted a demand for drastic changes to the criminal justice system.
The ‘Changing Prisons, Saving Lives’ report, which was commissioned by Labour peer Lord Toby Harris of Haringey, found that the present system is failing young people and the community.
The paper examines 87 suicides of young offenders including four children between April 2007 and December 2013.
Since it was completed, campaign group INQUEST has recorded a further 24 young adults who have committed suicide, with eight of them in this year alone.
Lord Harris said: “Young adults in prison are not sufficiently engaged in purposeful activity and the prison environment is grim, bleak and demoralising to the spirit.”
Matilda MacAttram of Black Mental Health UK, who contributed to the critical report, explained that while black prisoners are reportedly no more likely to take their own lives than their white counterparts, comparing the two fails to establish a real understanding of the susceptibility of this particular group to committing suicide.
As part of establishing the perspectives of prisoners from the UK’s African Caribbean communities, BMHUK raised the importance of contextualising the inequalities faced by this group at every stage of the criminal justice system.
Recent figures published by the Youth Justice Board confirmed the over-representation of ethnic minorities in the prison system.
SUICIDE: Riliwanu Balogun
In 2014, 40 per cent of prisoners under 18 were from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds.
Ministry of Justice data shows that black people are more likely to be charged and sent to prison than white people and more likely to receive longer custodial sentences. The same goes for young offenders.
According to the Harris review, the largest perpetrators of suicide were aged 21, with the most common place of death being in a normal single cell as a result of hanging.
One example was the death of Riliwanu Balogan who was found hanging in his cell in 2011 at the Glen Parva detention centre, in Leicestershire, shortly after his 21st birthday. He died in hospital a week later.
Balogan was a mental health patient who had been abandoned by his parents and spent years tumbling through the care system before being ordered to return to Nigeria where he was born.
Deborah Coles, co-director of INQUEST, said: “This important report is a devastating indictment of a flawed system that is systematically failing. That its findings echo what has been said repeatedly and that so many deaths could have been avoided if already-known lessons had been acted upon is all the more shocking.”
The deaths of vulnerable young prisoners represent “a failure by the state to protect the young people concerned,” the report stated.
It has made more than 100 recommendations and a warning for the government to make rehabilitation the primary goal of the prison system, otherwise more deaths were inevitable.
Cole added: “Justice Minister Michael Gove should take the opportunity to make a clear and clean break from the lamentable failures of the past.”