Vulnerable young people in custody need better mental health support, including safer and more inclusive places for treatment

The life experiences of young offenders in custody are undeniably diverse. This includes diversity in socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Various risk factors that may increase the likelihood of deviant behaviours and involvement in crime overlap those similar to mental health – ranging from living in poverty, child abuse, family breakdown to history of drug abuse and truancy. This however, does not fully explain why 95% of imprisoned young offenders have mental health disorders. There is more that can be done within the system to prevent such a statistic.

In this particular post, Pills and Policies explores the mental health concerns and needs of young offenders from ethnic minority backgrounds in custody.

‘40% of prisoners aged under 18 were from black, Asian, mixed or “other” ethnic backgrounds during 2014-15.’


There is an evident overrepresentation of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in all aspects of the criminal justice system. In England and Wales, 40% of prisoners aged under 18 were from black, Asian, mixed or “other” ethnic backgrounds during 2014-15. Despite this fact, the mental health care provided for young offenders is not as intersectional as it should be; Many vulnerable young people from BAME backgrounds are often left without the best support available to them.

For young offenders from BAME backgrounds, mental health concerns can be further exacerbated by experiences of discrimination and institutional racism within the youth justice system. This is particularly evident in the experiences of Black and Muslim young men in custody. Differential treatment that stems from preconceived ideas meant that “Black prisoners felt they were stereotyped as drug dealers and Muslim prisoners as terrorists”. This makes them viewed as a threat rather than as individuals in need. This added level of complexity needs further examining to ensure effective decisions are made to make the lives of vulnerable young people safer.

Findings from The Harris Review :

“Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people are over-represented at every stage of the criminal justice process with seven times the rate of stop and search of this group than white people, and a between three and four times over-representation in custody” (page 17 ).193 The submission from the Criminal Justice Alliance reported that “26%… of the prison population [have] a BAME background compared to about 10% of the general population”

On the flip side, those making the decisions concerning this group may not necessarily consist of a diverse workforce. More individuals from BAME backgrounds need to be part of the process of decision making in order to capture and empathise with the diversity of experiences of young offenders. For instance, officers from these backgrounds are underrepresented, with this underrepresentation of BAME individuals evident in various other professions that includes the civil service, government and so forth. Particularly, this raises the concerns that the prison service lacks cultural competence to effectively deliver its services to the population in custody. This needs urgent changing as this can greatly impact the mental health of vulnearble young offenders and further their marginalisation from society.

 ‘There needs to be an inherent shift in the philosophy of prison in this country.’

The Harris Review acknowledged these challenges in the review led by Toby Harris into deaths in custody of 87 15 -24 year old people between April 2004 and December 2013. The detailed review proposed a series of urgent recommendations, with the introduction of a new role of Custody and Rehabilitation Officer (CRO) being one of the more central recommendations. These officers would be responsible for the health, education, social care, safety and rehabilitation of an envisaged cohort of no more than 15 or 20 prisoners per officer. The emphasis of prior specialised training and foreseeing the management of the journey through prison for each individual – including keeping up with their mental health concerns and needs – would allow trust and rapport to be built between the young offenders and the officer.

Of course, for these benefits to be maximised, there must be an active recruitment of Custody and Rehabilitation Officers from a diverse range of backgrounds in order to overcome the concerns that were aforementioned. However, it is not to say that the recommended changes alone would be enough to change the negative experiences of BAME young offenders in custody. In fact, this extends to the prison population as a whole: ‘There needs to be an inherent shift in the philosophy of prison in this country’.

Zahid Mubarek was aged 19 when he was murdered by an inmate in a racially aggravated attack.

The prevalence of bullying in prisons, both by staff and between prisoners, was a concern also highlighted by The Harris Review. Undoubtedly, bullying can lead to risks of mental health concerns, or its further deterioration. Many of the young offenders stated in the review that bullying contributed to their experience of increased vulnerability in prison. The murder of Zahid Mubarek, who was of an ethnic minority background, by a fellow inmate revealed the multifaceted series of unfortunate and preventable events that lead to this distressing outcome. In this case, Mubarek was left vulnerable and later murdered by a known racist inmate, Rob Steward, with the inquest revealing 186 failings that led to his death. A clear disregard to racism and failures to inspect and treat Steward’s severe personality disorder were among the failings identified in the inquest. Mubarek’s family set up a charity in his memory, Zahid Mubarek Trust, to challenge discrimination within the criminal justice system.

We are monsters is a film about the story of Mubarek’s murder.

‘A more intersectional approach to the provision of mental health services for vulnerable young people is desperately required.’

Clearly, it is crucial to acknowledge the failings of the systems in that too often mental health concerns are not taken seriously enough until its inextricable link to physical health is more apparent. This shouldn’t be the case. Drastic changes need to take place if we are to ensure that vulnerable young people are to receive the best support that is so rightly deserved – regardless of being an offender or not. And this shouldn’t just include recognising their mental illness when they’re at their weakest. Instead, early intervention needs to be the forefront of our efforts to help treat mental illness before its development.

There is also a need for smoother transitions between different mental health services, with adequate aftercare offered to young people once they have left the criminal justice system.

More importantly, mental health provisions for vulnerable young people must be intersectional so that we have a legitimate and supportive system that works for everyone – not against them.

Follow us @PillsnPolicies


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s