Monday, 12 May 2014




The film Starred Up is garnering rave reviews about the talented young actor and gritty screenplay about a young man moving from a Youth Offender Institution into Adult Jail. It is being compared to the ground-breaking film Scum which highlighted the casual cruelty and violence inside.  But the reality is that the privatisation of Young Offenders Institutions has led to an increase in incidents involving riots, self-harm and suicide. It is another example of where a former public service has been contracted out to big companies such as G4S and SERCO earning millions of pounds in profits while leading to a poorer service and more problems.


The number of young people who have committed suicide in Young Offenders Institutions over the past ten years averages three per year. Last year, there were over 3,000 incidents of violence in youth custody establishments and another 1,500 instances of self-harming.

These are official statistics so like general crime the numbers are likely to be a gross under-representation. Young people in custody are 10 times more likely as adults to get involved in a fight or serious assault. In 2009 an official report found bullying at a YOI in Rochester to be so serious that victims hid in their cells and refused to come out, even to eat. Last year, at just one YOI in Aylesbury there were 173 incidents of violence experienced and 187 incidents (more than three per week) of self-harm among a mere 400 inmates.


19-year-old Zahid Mubarek was bludgeoned to death by his racist cellmate in Feltham young offender institution in November 2000. Feltham was later described by the Chief Inspector of Prisons as a 'dickensian' institution with a lack of proper management and cruel staff. Last week, the latest inquest into a suicide of a young person found that a series of 12 individual failures by prison staff more than minimally contributed to his death. Jake Hardy was 17 years old and serving six months for affray and common assault, and before entering Hindley had been diagnosed with attention and conduct disorders,and was under the care of a local mental-health team. He also had special educational needs and had previouslybeen bullied at school.


The Home Office estimates that more than 70 per cent of young offenders have an undiagnosed mental health problem before entering the Youth Justice System. Young offender institutions aren't equipped to tackle what are often complex social and mental health needs. Inmates who say they want to go straight complain that the educational opportunities are inadequate. Others use their time to enhance criminal skills and contacts. The outcome of all this is that 70% of those leaving youth custody reoffend within a year


The recent privatisation of the task for transporting young offenders and children on remand in appalling conditions between courts and Young Offenders Institutions may well be contravening the spirit of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, it has emerged. The charity Young Minds has found evidence of how young people are placed under significant mental distress while being transported between courts and YOIs – some of whom are on remand and have not been found guilty of committing any crimes.


According to the UNCRC, children in trouble with the law should be dealt with by a justice system which is distinct and separate from the adult justice system and placing children in such conditions is contrary to article 3 of the UNCRC on the best interest of the child.

The prisons inspectorate, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, has an expected outcome in relation to courts, escorts and transfers under the outcome of Safety that “children and young people transferring to and from establishments are treated safely, decently and efficiently”.


Reports from visits to Feltham, Bronzefield, Warren Hill, Holloway and Cockham Wood YOIs and prisons by Young Minds found some alarming concerns which provided a further context of the significant risk factors in causing mental distress. This is especially significant  when it has been recognised that one of the risk factors is the first few weeks transitioning to a YOI or prison and suicide prevention policies have specifically targeted the early stages of custody (Ministry of Justice ‘Safety in Custody Statistics Quarterly update to June 2012 England and Wales).The prisons inspectorate’s findings at Feltham YOI found that “a quarter of young people said that they did not feel safe on their journey”. The report concluded that young people should not be transported with adult prisoners and young people should not be held in court cells for unnecessarily long periods. Adding: “This was a clear breach of the contractual arrangements for court to prison moves”.


Steven Walker is the author of: Responding to Self Harm in Children and Adolescents (Jessica Kingsley Publishers).