The Harris Review
The report of the Independent Review into Self-inflicted Deaths in Custody of 18-24 year olds, led by Lord Toby Harris and therefore known as the Harris Review, was published in early July 2015.
The review was commissioned in response to the four children and 83 young adults (aged from 18 to 24) who died in custody between April 2007 and December 2013.
The review is a comprehensive report; in addition to examining the records of the 87 deaths, there were:
- Submissions received from 54 organisations and individuals.
- Consultation with senior experts and professionals
- 26 hearings and a number of meetings and seminars.
- Visits to prisons and Young Offender Institutions.
- Conversations with the families of the young adults and children who died.
- Surveys with young adults in custody
Vulnerable young people
The review invested considerable time in examining in detail the lives of these 87 young people; most of whom had a range of vulnerabilities. Some of the young people had had chaotic lives and complex histories. Some had been subject to child abuse, been exposed to violence or suffered high levels of bereavement. Others had been in foster and residential care. For some, these vulnerabilities were overlaid with negative stereotypes associated with being from BAME backgrounds, such as those concerning gangs or religion.
In many instances, these factors were further compounded by mental health issues, or by a lack of maturity, associated with the developmental stage in young adults where brain structures and coping strategies are still evolving.
The review found that there were a great many factors that contributed to the deaths of these young people including:
- The harsh custodial environment
- Impoverished regimes – made worse by staff shortages
- The lack of purposeful activity
- The lack of access to physical and mental health services
- An over-use of imprisonment and a lack of focus on rehabilitation
- Widespread bullying and the lack of a specific Prison Service Instruction to address it.
The review found that overall the policies that NOMS publishes through Prison Service Instructions are sound but that these are often not implemented. It comments on the “disconnect between what those in charge think should be happening and what is actually happening.”
The Harris Review makes two types of recommendations:
- Broad policy recommendations encouraging the diversion of more young people from custody
- Recommendations about improving the custody system for those young people who still end up inside, including:
- Better support for young adults including more family involvement
- Individual custody plans which ensure vulnerable young people get access to mental health services in particular
- Improving information exchange, again particularly around health and mental health issues
The review ends with an urgent plea for action now, irrespective of the cuts in public services:
[alert-announce]”Delaying action until the resource position is easier is not an option. Unless progress is made on the proposals that we have made, young people will continue to die unnecessarily in our prisons and we will continue to waste countless millions of pounds in failing to rehabilitate those who could be rehabilitated, in locking up those for whom a non-prison option would be more appropriate, and in failing to intervene early enough to prevent people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.”[/alert-announce]