YOUTH prisons are being used to lock up some of the country's most vulnerable and damaged children and should be closed immediately, says a report published today.
It says that half of the young people in custody have a mental illness and need treatment and support rather than punishment. Last year there were 944 recorded incidents of prisoners under the age of 18 harming themselves by, for example, slashing their wrists or eating glass. In the past decade, 18 teenagers have committed suicide.
The Prison Service launched an inquiry after two youths were injured when 15 young offenders, aged 15 to 18, barricaded themselves into a TV room at Hollesley Bay prison, near Woodbridge, Suffolk, on Monday night. Negotiators were called in to control the situation and the two teenagers received hospital treatment.
Most teenagers on remand have led disturbed lives and prisons are unable to help them, claims the report by the Church of England's Children's Society. Typically, 50 per cent have been excluded or were truanting, 35 per cent were living away from their parents and 10 per cent were homeless.
The Children's Society, backed by chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, wants an immediate end to imprisoning 15 and 16-year-olds on remand, and eventually all under-18s.
Sir David said: "If I had the power to do it, I would close these places and do it bloody uickly. The treatment and conditions in which 15 and 16-year-olds are held in custody are not acceptable. From the Home Secretary and the head of the Prison Service to the prison officer on the landing: the problem is that no one is taking responsibility and no one is accountable."
England and Wales lock up more teenagers than almost any country in Western Europe, with the numbers increasing by 11 per cent this year to around 3,000. A quarter of known offenders are under the age of 18.
Critics point to statistics that show that 90 per cent of young offenders who come out of prison re-offend within two years. They believe thecost of child imprisonment - amounting to more than pound;25,000 per head per year - should be invested in more effective community-based schemes to support children.
Ian Sparks, the society's chief executive, said: "The aim must be to abolish all custody for under-18s for the simple reason that it doesn't work. We cannot continue this shameful neglect of troubled young people and call ourselves a civilised society."
Norman Warner, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, said the Government was already reducing use of secure custody for youths. The Government this week announced a national electronic tagging system for 10 to 15-year-olds in a bid to extend curfew orders. Powers to impose such orders, requiring convicted youngsters to stay off the street at night, will be handed to courts early next year as an alternative to custody.