A basic call for humanity: the story of Alex Kelly

The events that lead to the death of a 15-year-old boy in a young offender institution last year demonstrate that reform is needed not to satisfy some left-wing notion of soft justice, but to introduce a basic standard of humanity.

In January last year, a 15-year-old boy was found unconscious in his cell at Cookham Wood, a young offender institution in Kent. He had hanged himself with his shoelaces. Staff tried to resuscitate him and paramedics attended before he was taken to hospital, but he was pronounced dead at 19:30 GMT.

His name was Alex Kelly. Here is his story, which is told in a case review into his death by Tower Hamlets Safeguarding Children Board.

Alex was in the care of Tower Hamlets council and was serving a 10 month detention and training order for burglary and theft from a vehicle. He was taken into care at the age of 6 after being repeatedly raped by a family member over a substantial period of time. According to the report, “The abuse had a profound effect on his emotional health and behaviour throughout the rest of his childhood.”

He became preoccupied with finding out about his history, his identity and why he was not living with members of his family, which led to increasing difficulties with his behaviour. Tower Hamlets provided no allocated social worker from October 2011 until shortly before the time of his death. Prior to this, he had eight different social workers between 2002 and 2012.

After sentencing in the Magistrates’ Court, the local Youth Offending Team recommended that Alex should be sent to Cookham Wood – despite the fact that his vulnerability meant he would have been eligible for placement in a small unit offering higher levels of support, like a secure children’s home.

At the time of his death he was on an open ACCT (Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork) plan. This was because he had threatened to “string up” on a number of occasions, was cutting himself and blocking the observation panel in the cell door. He received formal disciplinary charges in response to these cries for help.

The Serious Case Review found that there were serious failings in the working relationship between the health service, the mental health service and prison officers in Cookham Wood. If mental health staff had taken account of the records of prison officers regarding his behaviour, his risk of suicide would have been assessed as much higher, which would have influenced the way he was managed. For example, they might have removed his trainers from his cell. He also managed to stop his medication without staff being aware.

The night he died was the first time at Cookham Wood that he mentioned the previous sexual abuse he had suffered in conversation with a prison officer. His observations were increased to five per hour. He hanged himself in between these observations.

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Alex was the second young boy to die in a week by his own hand in a young offender institution, and one of three to die in 2011-2. There have been 34 deaths since 1990. The prisons ombudsman found two may have suffered bullying in the young offender institutions, were extremely vulnerable and should have been moved to specialist units. Evidence from CCTV suggested that even when staff witnessed harassing behaviour from other young people it was not adequately challenged.

There was a familiar problem maintaining a balance between care and discipline - or in the report’s words:

Assessments of vulnerability and risk of self-harm did not adequately weigh static risk factors against presentation or fully take into account the complex ways children can show emotional distress.

I speak to Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, to try to make sense of this case. He tells me:

The case is extreme: he took his own life - but it’s typical of the young people we encounter who end up in custody. We see a lot of chaos, neglect and abuse. We see police and social services aware of these problems but not intervening.

Once these youths offend, then the weight of the state comes down on them - but it’s the criminal justice system, which only serves to compound the problem. The punishment comes first: the welfare is an afterthought. It’s a problem which is only set to get worse as prison budgets are cut.

Neilson tells me that Alex’s problems were exacerbated by the fact he wasn’t in prison for a serious crime:

The people who come in for more serious crimes will be subject to more intense interventions in a bid to stop them offending again.

The state in its entirety failed Alex Kelly. While the Serious Case Review makes a number of important recommendations for Cookham Wood and Tower Hamlets council, one institution that isn’t held to account is the judiciary: in this case the magistrate that sentenced him.

Magistrates make vital decisions every day,” says Neilson, “But they have very little accountability. To some degree it’s understandable: we want to maintain the judicial independence of judges - but in the end they’re lay people and so we believe they should have more contact with the outcomes of their decisions, as it may influence the decision-making process in the future.

Neilson suggests nothing has been learned from the recent reports into these deaths:

The Government’s Transforming Youth Custody Consultation outlined all the welfare issues surrounding children who end up in prison, but then it just ignored them and went concentrated on education and secure colleges.

Calling for a root and branch reform of the way we treat the most vulnerable in our society is not some left-wing call for soft justice. It’s a basic call for humanity. More than that: it’s economically logical: every child like Alex Kelly costs tens of thousands every year to keep incarcerated. Basic things like sharing information better, improving access to mental health care and tackling bullying in child prisons are the most minor steps. That the Government would rather prioritise its latest ideological agenda is highly disappointing.

The Serious Case Review found that there were serious failings in the working relationship between those responsible for Alex. Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Photo: Getty
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What is the New Hampshire primary, and why does it matter?

Although the contest has proved less influential in recent years, the New Hampshire primary is still a crucial event.

While the Iowa caucuses are the first electoral event in the US’s presidential process, the New Hampshire primary is the candidates' most important early test before the action explodes across the rest of the country.

The stakes are high. If the nominations aren’t decided soon, the campaigns will be damned to a marathon of costly state primaries and caucuses; New Hampshire is their first best chance to avoid that fate. But it didn’t always work this way.

Primaries only became the key element of the nomination process relatively recently. Until the postwar era, presidential candidates were chosen at the national conventions in the summer: in the run-up to the 1960 election, future president John F Kennedy famously entered only one primary (West Virginia’s) to prove that a Roman Catholic could win a Protestant state.

It was only after the turmoil of the 1968 nomination, widely perceived as an establishment fix, that the McGovern-Fraser Commission changed the Democratic party’s rules to end the power of the “smoke-filled room” over the nominating process, prompting many states to adopt meaningful primaries for both parties' nominations.

First in the nation

Unlike caucuses, which generally are used in smaller states that would rather not pay for full-scale ballots, primaries are secret-ballot elections that allow voters to choose who will be their preferred nominee. But not all primaries are the same.

The parties sometimes hold their votes on the same day, as they do in New Hampshire, or on different ones. A primary may be open (allowing any voter to register a preference) or closed (allowing only pre-registered party supporters to vote). New Hampshire has a mixed system which allows voters to register in a primary on the day before voting without declaring a party affiliation.

That means that while all voters registered with a party must vote in that party’s ballot, the New Hampshire result often hinges on these unaffiliated voters. Because they can vote in whichever ballot they like and can register so close to primary day, the state is notoriously difficult to poll.

New Hampshire has cemented its first-in-the-nation status by passing a law that requires its lawmakers to move the state’s primary to pre-empt any other state’s, no matter how early. That means it’s traditionally been not just an important indicator of how candidates are faring, but a way of winnowing the field and generating or killing funding. Candidates who perform poorly generally find their access to money suddenly dries up.

The arguments against New Hampshire’s outsize role are many. Like Iowa, it’s hardly representative of the US as a whole, being a small state with an overwhelmingly white population. And while (unlike Iowa) it has no powerful evangelical Christian element, it retains a very distinctive tradition of small-town New England politics that demand a particular kind of face-to-face, low-to-the-ground campaigning.

But this time around, other factors have cut into New Hampshire’s significance.

On the Republican side, the primary’s winnowing role was in large part pre-empted when the TV networks holding debates allowed only the higher-polling candidates on stage, effectively creating a two-tier system that tarred lower-polling candidates as also-rans long before voting began. Meanwhile, the financial calculations have been transformed by campaign finance reforms that allow for almost unlimited outside fundraising – allowing candidates to build up the reserves they need to withstand a humiliating defeat.

Nonetheless, a truly surprising New Hampshire result could still change everything.

Shuffling the deck

New Hampshire hasn’t always chosen the winner in either the nomination contests or the general election. But it has provided more than its share of political upsets and key turning points, from persuading Lyndon Johnson not to stand again in 1968 to resurrecting the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008.

The incremental campaigns for the nominations are all about the perception of momentum, and a notional front-runner can be dislodged or destabilised by a poor performance early on. That’s especially true in this year’s cycle, in which both major parties are grappling with huge surges of support for outsider, anti-establishment candidates.

Mainstream Republicans have spent months trying to end Donald Trump’s noisy domination of their crowded field. Trump was indeed defeated in Iowa, but not by a moderating force: instead, it was radical conservative Ted Cruz who overturned him.

Cruz is loathed by the party establishment, and he stands little chance of appealing to mainstream voters. Marco Rubio’s strong showing in Iowa briefly made him something of a standard-bearer for the party’s moderates, but a disastrous turn at the last debate before New Hampshire has thrown the future of his candidacy into doubt.

The primary will also reveal who, if any, of the more moderate Republican candidates – among them Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie – will survive. While Bush has a massive funding advantage (albeit with precious little to show for it), Kasich and Christie both need a strong showing in New Hampshire to reinvigorate their financial reserves.

On the Democratic side, the key question is whether Bernie Sanders can make good on the surprising energy of his populist, grassroots challenge to Hillary Clinton. He is currently the heavy favourite in New Hampshire: even if Clinton somehow pulls off a miracle win there as she did in 2008, the closeness of the race is already stimulating both campaigns' national organisation and spending. And with what could be a long race between them heating up, the two’s growing mutual acrimony may yet start to undermine the Democrats' national appeal.

Gillian Peele Associate Professor in Politics and Tutorial Fellow at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.