2014 Is Not a Good Year to Be a British Young Offender

Violence, suicide and self-harm are rising, and the government aren't doing anything to help.

30 October 2014, 5:10pm

Prisoners at HMP Portland (©prisonimage.org)

For Steven Davison and the 649 other prisoners who called Glen Parva young offenders' institution (YOI) home, violence was a part of daily life. Davison, who'd been arrested for possession of an offensive weapon, committed suicide in the summer of 2013 after guards ignored his threats to stab himself.

A recent inspection of the facility in Leicestershire found that, since last year, assaults on staff had increased by 25 percent, three inmates had taken their own lives and some prisoners had been forcing cellmates to pay rent for the privilege of being incarcerated.

The inmates of Glen Parva are not alone. Our prisons - as the raft of weekly headlines will no doubt have informed you - are in trouble. Mounting insecurity, staff cuts and a harsher regime all-round has characterised recent years. Across the service, suicides are up by 64 percent, self-harm incidents have risen exponentially and the performance of a fifth of prisons in England and Wales has been described as "of concern".

The situation faced by young inmates is particularly dramatic. Along with Glen Parva, worrying reports about four other institutions (Aylesbury, Brinsford, Feltham and Isis) have been published, while a recent inspection of Doncaster prison found that inmates had gone without running water and electricity for days at a time. All this while government investigator Nigel Newcomen warned that more needed to done to safeguard young people in custody.

Conor (not his real name), 19, is one of more than 18,500 18-24 year-olds currently behind bars. He paints a bleak picture of life inside, though says his institution, while not well run, "is not terrible".

"No one's died," he explains. Which, as a measure of success, speaks to the current situation experienced by many British young offenders. 

Recent years have seen a hang-em, flog-em attitude dominate the UK prison service. Led by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, measures have been introduced to tighten up "prison privileges", including introducing lights-out times in YOIs and, at the end of last month, banning children from playing video games while locked up.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling (Screen shot via)

The Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick took the unprecedented step of criticising government policy at the beginning of August, alleging that this harsher environment has fostered the rise of prisoners committing suicide.

Speaking to VICE, Frances Crook - Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, the oldest penal reform charity in the world - has some strong words for the Justice Secretary. "Grayling doesn't actually know anything about prisons," she says. "He doesn't know how they work. He doesn't know how they are run. When he makes statements to the Sun or the Telegraph, he doesn't understand what the consequences are."

Crook condemns Grayling's rhetoric for dehumanising inmates. "A lot of these people aren't offenders, because they're on remand and they're children," she argues.

"He sees them all as offenders, tearaways and youths. We don't talk about our own children like that, even if they have done something wrong. That philosophical difference is a matter of principle and is a big change. Previously, there was always a recognition that under-18s legally - morally - are children and should be treated differently. He uses them to further his own career, with petty announcements that have ridiculous implications for the people that have to implement them."

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform (Screen shot via)

The government has always denied that the prison service is in crisis, and in a Justice Questions in the House of Commons Grayling went as far as to suggest that the media has exaggerated the situation by focusing only on the most dramatic reports. He cited Chelmsford as an example of a well-run institution, ignored by the press.

"Chelmsford is not a good report, but it's not a bad one either," Crook says. "They've had seven suicides, which is generally not a good thing. It's revealing a system that's in crisis."

There were in excess of 8,000 incidents of self-harm among people aged 18-24 in our prisons last year. The Howard League state that the toughening up of so-called "prison privileges" and cuts to staff numbers by the current government has created an environment where inmates have little to do, making acts of violence of self-harm more likely.

In their submission to the Harris Review, an independent inquiry set up last year to examine deaths of young people in custody, the charity wrote that: "Despite claims from the Ministry of Justice as to the need for prisoners to make use of their time, most young adults are cooped up for excessive periods each day with nothing to do. The inadequate provision of meaningful or, indeed, any activity at all for this group is exacerbated by the hopelessness caused by the new incentives and privileges regime."

Crook believes the review, which is set to be published at some point after the next general election, should also look at the sentences handed down to young people.

"Nobody has looked at the sentencing of 18-24 year-olds," she argues. "When you look at the 18-year-olds who have died in prison, when there's an investigation into their deaths, they look at the way they were treated in prison, but nobody asks whether they should have been in prison in the first place."

A note on the wall at HMP Aylesbury (©prisonimage.org)

For those inside the system, there are ways and means of getting by. Conor says he copes by "keeping himself to himself".

"Trouble doesn't really come my way, as I'm calm and relaxed, and generally I get along with people," he says. "Eventually you've got to let people know how far they can joke so they know not to take it too far - you just have to let them know how far they can take it. That's only occasionally, for me anyway.

"I think certain people... they like to bully. But then there's certain people on the wing who try to put a stop to that. It depends on what wing and what people they are."

He says that cuts to staffing levels at his institution has meant that life there can be chaotic: "Recently, there's been a shortage of staff because apparently they're having to send them to the other prisons [nearby]. They said it was only the once, but it's happened a few times. Especially for the last year [they've been] saying about how they're shipping out YP [young adults], and how it's not going to be a YP prison any more - but this prison is for YPs.

"You're unable to settle in general as a young person here. You can't settle down and just get on with things because there's always a fear as a young person about where they're going to send you. There's not many places I can go, so you don't know where you're going to end up. It's like living in the dark."

Speaking after the inquest into his son's death, Jeffrey Davison said the staff at Glen parva had failed him.

"The jury made the right decision. The staff at the prison didn't do their jobs and neither did the mental health team," he said. "Glen Parva has to make changes because they can't keep putting families through this."


More stories about prison:

The Psychedelic 'Drugs Wizard' Who Ran Brighton's Biggest LSD Lab

Strangeways, Here We Come

The Visual Encyclopaedia of Russian Jail Tattoos

Vice Channels