Crowdfunded Journalism

'I would have camped outside that prison every single day', says mother of bullied teenager who hanged himself in his cell

Hardeep Matharu photo
Hardeep MatharuLondon, UK
'I would have camped outside that prison every single day', says mother of bullied teenager who hanged himself in his cell
Liz Hardy, whose son Jake committed suicide in 2012, spoke at the launch of a campaign to End Child Imprisonment in England.

The mother of a boy who hanged himself in prison after being relentlessly bullied said she would have “camped outside every single day” if she had known just how damaging an environment it was.

Liz Hardy’s 17-year-old son Jake Hardy committed suicide in his cell at Hindley Young Offenders Institution (YOI) in 2012 after bullying by other prisoners and staff left him unable to cope.

The teenager, who had mental health problems and special educational needs, had recently self-harmed and had previously been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder. It was his first time in custody.

His suicide note read: “So mum if you are reading this, I’m not alive as I cannot cope in prison. People keep giving me shit, even staff.”

Speaking at the launch of a campaign to 'End Child Imprisonment' in Parliament last week, Ms Hardy said the system had completely failed Jake.

“If I had known what I know now, I would have camped outside that prison,” she said. “I would have been there every single day.

“I thought he would be fed, watered, kept clean, warm and that he would have a nice bed to sleep in and that the basics would be there, I didn’t expect prison officers to look after him like I did, but I thought he’d get the basics. My son didn’t get any of that. 

As someone who had no knowledge of young offending institutions, I didn’t learn what goes on until it was too late.”

She said Jake, who constantly complained of being hungry, didn’t know how to cope with the bullying and isolated himself, but this made him more of a target.

“I told Jake to keep his head down and ‘get it done son’ but this made him more vulnerable,” Ms Hardy said. “He isolated himself. In prison it’s who’s top dog, you’ve got to fight your way to the top to stay safe. It wasn’t until after Jake died that I found out he had been taken to hospital by the prison because he had heart palpitations.”

Explaining how Jake needed to take the medication Ritalin  also known as methylphenidate  Ms Hardy said: “Whenever prison officers went to his cell, they called out ‘meth boy’ so the other boys thought he was a drug addict and that he was taking methadone, but he wasn’t. He stopped taking [Ritalin] because of the bullying.”

“After Jake died, I got to see the CCTV recording showing what happened before he had hung himself,” she added. “Other lads were crowding round his cell, goading him to kill himself. There were prison officers watching this happen. Five minutes before Jake hung himself he asked if he could ring me. They didn’t let him. 

“When I saw inside Jake’s cell I couldn’t believe it. There was a metal single bed, a toilet in the corner and a desk he had smashed to smithereens. The cell was about 6ft by 6ft and there was a plastic window with bars in front. This is how Jake managed to hang himself.”

When the police informed her Jake had died, she rang Hindley YOI which said “they didn’t have a prisoner named Jake Hardy”.

“There was no empathy, no kindness, nothing,” Ms Hardy said. “At the inquest there was an officer who said Jake was a very spoilt boy who never knew the word ‘no’... They took one look at Jake and thought because he was a big lad he could handle himself. I didn’t expect them to mollycoddle Jake, but if a boy cries asking for his mum, why can’t they show some empathy and take him to an office and let him ring his mum?”

The campaign to ‘End Child Imprisonment’ is being spearheaded by six charities: Article 39, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, the Howard League for Penal Reform, Inquest, Just For Kids Law, and the National Association for Youth Justice.

It is calling for children’s prisons in England  such as YOIs and secure training centres  to be closed.

Carolyne Willow, a children’s rights campaigner, said change is urgently needed as “what children go through in prison is the world turned upside-down”.

“Everything in the way we treat children affects how safe they feel  how we look at them, speak with them, be with them,” she said. “I’m reminded of the notice inspectors found in Cookham Wood YOI in 2009  the notice read that children would be strip-searched using force if they didn’t cooperate.

“We cannot go accepting children being held in such extreme states of powerlessness in institutions designed to inflict suffering.”

In his damning and deeply worrying annual report for 2016-17, the Chief Inspector of Prisons said he had not inspected “a single establishment in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people” and that a tragedy was waiting to happen.

In October, the Children’s Commissioner for England raised concerns about the increasing use of solitary confinement in children’s prisons in recent years, despite the number of young people in custody falling.

Dr John Chisholm, chair of the British Medical Association’s medical ethics committee, said “welfare-based and rehabilitation-focused” alternatives to children's prisons have to be the way forward, in contrast to the violent institutions that currently exist.

Speaking at the campaign launch, he said health-related human rights of young people also need to be recognised.

“Children and young people who offend are amongst the most vulnerable, deprived and disadvantaged members of our society. Many have chaotic home lives characterised by violence, abuse, neglect, time spent in care, homelessness and by exclusion from mainstream education.

“About 60% of those in custody have significant speech, language and learning difficulties. Over a third have a mental health disorder. Despite their high level of need, they are all too often overlooked or let down by the services designed to promote their health and wellbeing. The inevitable result is further deprivation and increase in marginalisation. Yet, the state is legally obliged to protect and safeguard the wellbeing of children and young people.”

He said that addressing practices such as the use of restraint, force and segregation on children in prisons  all of which increase the risk of suicide, self-harm and long-term harm without improving behaviour or addressing underlying cases  has to be a Government priority.

For Dr Tim Bateman, deputy chair of the National Association for Youth Justice, the Government’s renewed focus on “secure schools” will not be able to provide effective educational environments for the extremely vulnerable children ending up in the criminal justice system.

“Many of the children in prison are so damaged and their needs so extensive that high-quality care and emotional support, building-up trust and therapeutic intervention are required before children are educationally ready,” he said at the campaign launch. “It’s clear that prisons are becoming consistently violent year on year and environments that rely more and more on physical restraint and segregation.”

Dr Bateman said an incremental approach to ending child imprisonment would result in change, and successful steps have already been taken to divert young people away from prison.

“Politicians have historically been very wary of appearing to be soft on youth crime and child imprisonment is a way of demonstrating that you’re tough on youth crime,” he said. “Allied to that is politicians who claim the public is also fairly tough on youth crime… But we know that it’s quite possible to see substantial shifts in the use of imprisonment without the world collapsing.

“The number of children in custody in the last 10 years has fallen by 75% and much of the public and politicians have not seemed to have noticed that much. We could quite easily reduce the current population of children in prison by another 50% by preventing courts from imposing imprisonment for persistent minor offending. If we get the numbers down to that kind of level, we could start looking to transfer children to other forms of establishments which are more child-centred.”

At least four in 10 children in prison have been in care, have special educational needs or were eligible for free school meals. Disproportionately, almost half of those imprisoned are black or ethnic minorities. Nearly one-third have mental health problems.

More information about the campaign can be found here.

Follow me on Twitter for prisons and criminal justice updates @Hardeep_Matharu

#child imprisonment, #prisons, #justice, #criminal justice, #crime, #human rights, #solitary confinement