In 2009 Rob Allen published an article on the Guardian website called Prison is no place for children. That statement still rings true today. He continues to say that “The prison inspectorate’s disturbing report of the culture of violence and fear in Cookham Wood Young Offender Institution (YOI) prompts serious questions about whether prisons should continue to accommodate children under 18.”
Another key issue which affects many young people in prisons is self harm and self injure. The number of young people who self harm is becoming more apparent. Recent research suggests that 10 per cent of 15 to 16 year olds have self harmed at some stage in their lives.
In 2003 there were 16,393 cases of self-harm in prisons in England and Wales but the number has since increased to 22, 459 cases according to The Howard League for Penal Reform, which is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
Feltham prison, in Middlesex, is one of the biggest prisons for children and young people in the whole of Europe. Frances Crook, Chief Executive of The Howard League for Penal Reform recently expressed her concerns about young people’s self harm and self injure behaviours in prisons. She expressed her concerns about young prisoners who self harm as coming from appalling backgrounds, e.g. homelessness, having abusive parents or engaging in prostitution, and self loathing. Self injury on the other hand, comes in all forms including; cutting, swallowing, hair pulling and also taking cocktails of drugs. The conditions and prison environment in itself do not help their situations and lends itself to create an environment where suicide, self harm and self injure can flourish without young offenders receiving appropriate self harm help.
Being in prison for anyone, let alone an adolescent, can be very lonely, distressing and disempowering! Harming themselves enables them to gain some element of control of themselves and their body. They may be driven by anger to self injure or self injure as an expression of their anger and to obtain some element of ‘release’.
Frances illustrated an example of a young prisoner who self injured by inserting objects many times; resulting in the young offender not being able to have children. Some people often assume those who self harm are inarticulate and uneducated individuals. However, self harm and self injure are generally done by people of all intelligence levels, ages and genders, who are in a high state of emotion and distress, hence it is vital that young people in prisons are assessed regularly as they are vulnerable and at risk of self injuring and equally vital that Prison Officers increase their level of self harm awareness in order to be able to provide relevant and adequate help for self harm.
The Howard League for Penal Reform sets out to achieve change in young people’s experiences in prisons and to improve the nature and situations of these establishments for young people.