Tragic Adam Rickwood's words used to highlight youth justice system failures

WORDS from a teenager who died at a North East detention centre have been used to highlight the “systemic failures” contributing to the deaths of children in the prison system.

Carol Pounder holds a picture of her son Adam Rickwood

WORDS from a teenager who died at a North East detention centre have been used to highlight the “systemic failures” contributing to the deaths of children in the prison system.

In 2004 Adam Rickwood became the youngest person to die in custody in modern times when he was found hanging in his cell at the Hassockfield Secure Training Centre at Consett, County Durham. He was 14.

An inquest later ruled his death was an unlawful killing after hearing that Adam had hanged himself after an incident which saw him being restrained by staff using an illegal technique.

Now testimony from Adam, written just hours before his death, has formed a major part of a report by the Prison Reform Trust and charity Inquest alleging that systemic failures in prisons and the criminal justice system are contributing to the deaths of children and young people in custody.

In his written statement to the authorities, found in his room after his death, Adam said: “When the other staff came they all jumped on me and started to put my arms up my back and hitting me in the nose. I then tried to bite one of the staff because they were really hurting my nose.

“My nose started bleeding and swelled up and it didn’t stop bleeding for about one hour and afterwards it was really sore. When I calmed down I asked them why they hit me in the nose and jumped on me. They said it was because I wouldn’t go in my room so I said what gives them the right to hit a 14-year-old child in the nose and they said it was restraint.”

Adam’s mother Carol Pounder fought for justice for seven years to discover the circumstances surrounding her son’s death and last year a second inquest concluded the teenager had been unlawfully killed following a serious system failure at the centre.

His ordeal is covered in the report Fatally Flawed, in which former chief inspector of prisons Lord Ramsbotham said that the lack of action to reduce young deaths in prisons over the past decade is a “devastating indictment of bad practice”.

Nine children and more than 190 other young people aged 24 and under have died in prisons or secure training centres since calls for a review went 10 years ago, campaigners said.

The report says: “Too often ’tough’ talk about crime and punishment does not result in the authoritative action needed to rectify the flaws in our criminal justice system.

“Until and unless named individuals are made responsible and accountable for ensuring that things happen, nothing will happen.”

Mrs Pounder has welcomed the report and is joining the charities in calling for a public inquiry into the deaths. It emerged in January 2011 that despite there being copious notes about Adam’s mental state, detailing his suicidal tendencies and habit of self-harming, these were not read by staff caring for him.

Mrs Pounder said: “From my own experience I know there are systemic failures and also a failure with the qualifications of staff as they are not properly trained to deal with vulnerable children.

“It is extremely worrying that children are still dying in custody and secure centres. Each time a child dies they say they will learn from it. It is all very well putting it down on paper but they need to put into practice some real changes.”

Children’s Commissioner for England, former director of children’s services at Gateshead, Maggie Atkinson, said: “It is never acceptable for a child to come to harm while they are imprisoned and this situation does need close and careful monitoring and scrutiny, as demonstrated through research such as this today.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “Every death in custody is a tragedy for families and friends and has a profound effect on staff and other prisoners. The rate of self-inflicted deaths has fallen by approximately 40% since 2004, but we are committed to further reducing the numbers of deaths in custody.”

She went on: “Young people in custody are some of the most vulnerable and troubled individuals in society and their safety is our highest priority. Strenuous efforts are made to learn from each death and improve our understanding and procedures for caring for prisoners. Findings from relevant reports and inquests are examined and incorporated into policies with guidance and lessons learned shared with custodial staff.”

Nobody was available for comment at Hassockfield.

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