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Britain: Teenager commits suicide in prison
By Keith Lee
27 May 2002
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On March 24, 15-year-old Joseph Scholes hung himself after spending
only nine days in the Stoke Heath Young Offender Institution. The events
surrounding his tragic death highlight the brutal nature of the Labour
government’s “get tough” policy on young offenders and its attitude to the
social problems facing young people in general.
Joseph was a disturbed and alienated teenager. Just four months earlier
he had tried to commit suicide after a period of personal trauma. His life
was in turmoil. His parents had gone through an acrimonious divorce and he
had allegedly been the victim of sexual abuse by a member of his father’s
family. Prescribed Prozac, Joseph had been visiting a psychiatrist for
months, during which time a custody battle was raging in court.
Finally on November 2001, Joseph tried to kill himself by taking an
overdose and jumping out a window. Clearly in a very distressed state he
started to fight with the ambulance staff. Unbelievably he was hauled off
to court and convicted of affray.
In December Joseph entered voluntary care at a children’s home in Sale,
Manchester. According to reports, in the home Joseph slashed his face over
30 times with a knife. The Observer newspaper reported that one cut
was down to the bone, and there was so much blood that the room had to be
repainted. Four days later Joseph was arrested for robbery, found guilty
and sentenced to two years detention.
The governor of Stoke Heath Young Offender Institution told the
Observer that Joseph was not a thief and that he believed the boy
had played only a small role in the offences he was charged with. Yvonne
Scholes, Joseph’s mother, said: “Joe told me he pleaded guilty because he
couldn’t take any more. At that stage, he was so ill in his head; he just
wanted it to be over. I still don’t know how they could lock up a boy who
had all these things happen to him.”
The death of Joseph has been met with a wall of silence. Apart from a
few brief columns in the Guardian and Observer, the untimely
death of a young boy has barely been reported, let alone any of the
serious and disturbing issues posed by the tragedy debated. Even a cursory
look at the circumstances of Joseph’s death can only expose the policies
of a government that is callous and indifferent to the problems afflicting
the most vulnerable in society.
Joseph’s mother said, “The day he was sentenced, I knew he was going to
die. You don’t get a death sentence for murder. Why should a child get one
How a child undergoing psychiatric treatment and known to have suicidal
tendencies could be locked up defies every principle of justice. Yet
Joseph’s death is the direct result of Labour’s “law and order” campaign,
a government whose sole response to the deepening social polarisation is
Scholes was the third youngster to take his life this year. The Howard
League has produced horrifying statistics on tragic outcome of Labour’s
law and order offensive (www.web.ukonline.co.uk/howard.league). Four
16-year olds have committed suicide in prison since January 2000. In the
last 10 years, 18 children have killed themselves in prisons and there
were 554 incidents of self-harm between April 2000 and November 2001.
When Labour came into office, it claimed that it would be “tough on
crime and tough on the causes of crime”. Whilst it has zealously defended
the first plank of its policy, locking up more people than ever before: on
the causes of crime—poverty, inequality and social exclusion—its policies
have only served to deepen the social divide.
Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, found that whilst “it was
expected that youths in custody might be among the most disadvantaged in
the country, the extent of the deficits revealed during the course of the
inspections alarmed even the inspectors, familiar with the needs of this
group.” According to Owers, half of the young people in detention had
previously been in local authority care and “73 percent described their
educational attainment as nil”. A 1998 study, Wasted Lives, by the
prison reform group Nacro (National Association for the Care and
Rehabilitation of Offenders), reported that young prisoners were very
likely to have suffered deprivation of all kinds, including physical and
sexual abuse and mental illness.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines
children as any person less than 18 years of age. But under Labour,
17-year-olds are effectively treated as adults by the criminal justice
system. The government ignored the advice of the Chief Inspector of
Prisons—who in 1997 published a damming report on conditions and treatment
of young people in jail—that those below 18 years of age should not be
held in the prison system.
Under its 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, Labour built on the punitive
character of previous Tory legalisation in dealing with young offenders.
In 1993, 4,200 children were sentenced to immediate custody. By 1999 this
had risen to 7,000—an increase of 67 percent. Similarly, the length of
sentences handed out to children has increased from an average of 8.6
months in 1993 to 11.4 months in 1999.
The government recently announced that hundreds of children currently
on bail pending trial would be remanded in custody in the future. More
than £6 million a month is to be spent on creating “secure cells” for
children, and certain prisons or prison wings are to be designated for
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, said, “Locking up
children for short periods whilst they await trial is a failed policy that
will lead to more crime and misery.” The league has taken the government
to court over the fact that children were not being protected from
bullying, assault and self-harm.
Mother faces prison for failing to send daughters to school
Society, top prisons inspector call for an end to jailing children in
[28 November 2000]
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