Two national charities have called for an urgent independent review of ‘systemic failings’ that have led to the deaths of 200 imprisoned children and young people over the past decade.

In a report published today, Inquest and the Prison Reform Trust recommend 13 changes to address the what it called the ‘failings’ that contributed to the deaths of 200 children and young people aged under 24 since 2002.

Among the specific criticisms, the charities say that the prison regime fails to differentiate between young adults and adults and that there is little understanding of, or attention paid to, their specific needs.

The report finds that some of those who died were among the most disadvantaged in society and had experienced problems with mental health, self-harm, and alcohol or drugs, and that they had received significant interaction with community agencies before entering prison.

But it says that ‘failures in communication’ meant information was not passed from those agencies to the prisons and that despite their vulnerabilities children and young people had been sent to prisons with ‘unsafe environments and cells’ where they received poor medical care and limited access to therapeutic care.

Among its recommendations, the report suggests raising the custody threshold to ensure that imprisonment becomes a last resort that is reserved for the minority of young people who commit serious violent offences and who pose a significant risk to others. ‘Custody should not be the default response to low-level persistent offending,’ it says.

Minor offences and anti-social behaviour committed by young people, it says, should be viewed as a public health, rather than a criminal justice issue.

The recommends that comprehensive training should be given to sentencers and their legal advisers to make them more aware of the principles and sentencing guidelines for custody, and to ensure they can identify complex needs, vulnerability and the court’s options under mental health laws.

The report also calls for research on the distinct needs of 18-24-year-olds in custody and ‘substantial improvements’ in the availability and quality of mental healthcare provided.

The report was commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust and the information was based on data compiled by Inquest through its specialist advice and casework service.

Inquest co-director Deborah Coles called for an urgent review to examine the ‘wider systemic and policy issues’ underlying the deaths. She said: ‘This shocking death toll has been obscured for far too long and for the first time, we now have a clear picture of the extent of the problem and the fatal consequences of placing vulnerable young people in unsafe institutions ill-equipped to deal with their complex needs.’

PRT director Juliet Lyon said: ‘After 200 deaths in 10 years it is time to learn that locking up our most vulnerable children and young people in our bleakest institutions is a process that is fatally flawed.’