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Howard League blog · 13 Dec 2022

What happens when young people in prison experience bereavement?

Earlier this year, our legal team was contacted by a young person in prison. His great-aunt, who had cared for him while his father was working, had passed away and he had been denied the right to attend her funeral.

Just because someone is in prison, it does not mean that their life and ties to their community are put on hold. Kept far from their families and loved ones, those in prison are often left on the sidelines while lives outside continue without them. And in these circumstances, the opportunities, few and far between, when inmates are able to connect or support their families become all the more significant and meaningful.

In situations such as that of our client, there are prison rules that allow applications for prisoners to be able to attend funerals, either through release on temporary licence for compassionate reasons (‘compassionate ROTL’) or by way of secure escort. As our client was not eligible for compassionate release, he applied for a secure escort. However, the request was on the basis that the deceased was neither a direct family member or ‘loco parentis’ (i.e. ever acting as his parent). The prison did not exercise any discretion to accommodate for the close relationship the young person had with his great-aunt.

Inter-personal ties and family relations are rarely one-size-fits all. In the cases we see, there are all manner of families which may not fit a clear-cut definition of a nuclear family, but encompass all their love, responsibility and care. Prison policies, such as the secure escort policy, do not take into account the non-nuclear family set-up common to children and young people in prison. Too often, the unyielding rules of prison bureaucracy are unable to accommodate the nuances and individual circumstances of the people they are meant to help. Our legal team requested adjustment in these stringent rules through expanding the definition in line with other policies which account for close caring relationships that exist in extended families, but the prison did not shift or respond to the request in the appeal.

The prison’s response showed no discretion in considering the unique circumstances of a second death in a matter of weeks, and ignored the research we provided examining the damaging effect of bereavement on young people in custody.

Having already been denied the right to attend his great-aunt’s funeral, our client, who is serving a long sentence and has a diagnosis of autism, found out that another close relative had passed away on the day of his great-aunt’s funeral. We made another application to attend the second funeral, and were refused again – this time the response was worded identically to the previous, showing no sincere consideration and no risk assessment was carried out. The prison’s response showed no discretion in considering the unique circumstances of a second death in a matter of weeks, and ignored the research we provided examining the damaging effect of bereavement on young people in custody.

Our legal team raised a complaint to the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman to hold the prison to account on their decision-making processes and to consider the inflexibility of the policy’s definition of ‘close family’. The Ombudsman did not uphold our complaint and simply repeated the crude fact that the deceased was not an immediate family member. He was told that if he is unhappy with the decision, his only remaining option is to complain to the Parliamentary Health Ombudsman, if his local MP is satisfied to refer the complaint. In any event, it is too late for this young person who has missed out on the opportunity to share and process his grief with his family. Instead, our client spent those days alone in his cell and will unlikely have access to any therapeutic intervention to address his trauma through the remainder of his 14-year sentence.

Unfortunately, cases such as these are not rare. Since this case, we have been contacted by another young person who has been denied attending his friend’s funeral. As in the previous case, the context of his relationship showed a close bond, with this young man having lived with his friend for several years as a teenager. However, because the relationship did not ascribe to the strict and limited categories delineated in prison policies, this young person was denied the right to attend his friend’s funeral or process his bereavement with his community. 

Young people who find themselves in prison experience bereavement, and often traumatic deaths, more than the general population. They must be supported through these circumstances, and given the resources and compassion to process and work through grief and the impacts of such challenges. Rather than forcing unnecessarily stringent rules on vulnerable young cohorts, prison policies must adapt and develop to the nuances of the people they apply to.

Andrea Coomber KC (Hon.)


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