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The voice of lived experience

A new (30 May 2022) report by Leaders Unlocked and the Young Justice Advisors, a team of young adults aged 18-30 with lived experience of the criminal justice and care systems, explores a number of key themes with the purpose of advocating for change. The research, based on peer interviews and surveys with 333 young adults focuses on:

  1. Race and Racism
  2. The Care System
  3. Mental Health and the Criminal Justice System.
  4. Life After Prison.

The report makes it clear these four issues are obviously interlinked but organises its findings under the four topic areas.

Race and Racism

Across ethnicities, young people from racialised communities told the researchers that in prison, they have to constantly disprove negative stereotypes and believe they get wrongly accused and unfairly punished. Young Black people said that they are assumed to be more angry, aggressive and violent than everyone else, and as a result, they get punished more frequently, and more harshly than others for the same behaviour.
Young people of colour said that they don’t think enough is being done to combat racism in the criminal justice system.

Other findings included a lack of understanding of young people’s religious needs in prison. 

The young people consulted said that although they distrusted white prison officers in general, they were able to identify individual ‘good’ officers who they did trust. These good officers were characterised as being respectful, friendly, and understanding, and showing that they cared by taking an interest in young people’s cultural background, lifestyle and needs.

The care system

The findings from this part of the research focused on:

A lack of proper housing with many people being moved continuously and a majority not liking group homes. This lack of continuity made people reluctant to trust professionals at later stages of their journey. Again, young people identified key support workers who had made a big difference in their lives but this was seen as being despite rather than because of the care system.

Young people from racialised communities report being housed in places where they experienced racism and isolation.

Depressingly, young people felt that their aspirations were not encouraged and they were also expected to be adult before they were.

Mental health and the criminal justice system

Young people told us researcher that they had been traumatised by their interactions with the police and their time in prison. This was true both for young people with underlying mental health conditions and those without. Some young people had PTSD directly because of trauma they experienced in prison. Young people also said that living through the pandemic in prison has brought further trauma, caused by extended periods of isolation and fear, without any face-to-face mental health support.

Young people reported not being taken seriously when they told prison staff about their mental health conditions and needs. They explained that prison officers expect most people in prison to have some mental health condition, and so mental ill health has become normalised, which means mental health support is not prioritised. Young people described having to be in crisis in order to get help, especially during lockdowns.
Young people who had had mental health support before imprisonment, were very positive about that support, saying  that it had increased their ability to cope with life in prison.

People also said that when they did get support, it was not sufficient for their needs. They felt prison staff treated everyone with a mental health need the same, explaining that they were more likely to be prescribed medication and/or inappropriately referred to peer support services instead of being offered the clinical, therapeutic support they believed they needed.

Life after prison

The young people consulted for this report highlighted a number of issues about resettlement:

  • A lack of basic information to help prepare for release
  • A lack of faith in the probation system, with better experiences of the voluntary sector.
  • Feeling that licence conditions set them up to fail and recall has become the norm.
  • A bad situation considerably worsened by the pandemic.
  • Feeling overwhelmed and isolated during the transition from prison to community with negative impact on their mental health.


The report concludes with a number of key recommendations for each of the four areas under enquiry. These include extending care orders to last until someone is 25 years old, increased mental health provision in prisons and every probation region to have a specific reoffending plan for young adults in their area. 

Thanks to Sinitta Leunen for kind permission to use the image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.

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