This is the story of a suicide. It is the story of a boy who spent the last days of his short, troubled life in the strip cell of a British prison. For much of that time he was naked, covered only by a loose-fitting garment, something like a horse blanket; it was heavy, it chafed the skin, it was demeaning to wear, and when it was produced at the inquest there was a visible reaction from the coroner and jurors, perhaps because they were unable to believe that, in the 21st century, this is the garb in to which the state forces vulnerable children in its care.
During the nine days he survived prison, the boy was for the most part completely isolated. He was depressed, frightened and uncommunicative. He had scars on the bridge of his nose, on his chin and on his arms, injuries which, over the years, he had inflicted on himself. Then, on Sunday March 24 2002, he wrote a note to his parents and attached a noose to the bars of a cell window. His body was discovered by Steve Cowdell, a maintenance worker, who had been called in to investigate a problem with blocked toilets. Cowdell took the boy's weight, untied the knot and lowered him to the floor. By then John Joseph Scholes, known by his family as Joe, was almost certainly already braindead. He was 16 years and one month old. The note he left read: "I love you mum and dad. I'm sorry, I just can't cope. Don't be sad. It is no one's fault. I just can't go on. None of it was any of your fault, sorry. Love you and family, Joe." To which he added an angry postscript: "I tried telling them and they just don't fucking listen, the wankers."
Beyond the personal tragedy for Joe and those who knew and loved him, there is a larger story. This concerns our prisons, obviously, and what goes on inside their walls. It also concerns our politicians, including - very directly in Joe's case - the home secretary, David Blunkett, and the now familiar blunt-speaking, high-profile forays into the law and order debate in which he seems to delight so much. It concerns our leading judges, including - also very directly - the lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, and how the judiciary responds to political and media pressure.
And it concerns us, as a society, for if Joe's death does anything, it throws an unwelcome spotlight on our appetite for punishment, for seeing it inflicted, for tolerating its severity, on our apparent ease at consigning those like Joe to the far reaches of our consciousness, where they are neither seen nor heard, sending them, in effect, to our own mental strip cells. Some might complain that this is too bleak a view, but were it otherwise, Joseph Scholes would not have died, alone and frightened, hanging from the bars of a cell window.
By any measure, Joe was a terribly disturbed boy. He was born on February 20 1986 in Sale, a pleasant, residential suburb of Manchester, where his mother, Yvonne, was also born. However, in 1997 Yvonne's marriage broke down, and she had to sell their house and move the family - Joe, his two older sisters and his younger brother, Jack - to Wythenshawe to live on a council estate.
Yvonne describes Joe as always having been young for his age. At 14 and 15, he was still climbing trees and building dens. She had earlier begun to notice relatively minor injuries on his body, but these Joe explained away as scrapes and bumps caused during play. However, the injuries soon worsened and Yvonne came to the unpleasant realisation that her son was deliberately harming himself. At the inquest into Joe's death, held in Shrewsbury in April this year, Yvonne laid out for the coroner and the jury a horrific catalogue of self-abuse. She described how Joe would drive sharp implements far down into his nails, causing his toes to go septic. The pain was excruciating, but nothing Yvonne could do would persuade him to accept medical attention. He also inflicted deep cuts to his face, on one occasion scoring the bridge of his nose so severely that he cut it down to the bone.
Like many boys on the verge of puberty, Joe developed an obsession with his body, getting angry if his mother or sisters disturbed him in the bathroom. He would, Yvonne recalls, spend up to four hours in the bath. Additionally, and again not unusually in boys of his age, there was an element of anxiety about his sexuality, which Joe expressed in violent rants against gays (and which Yvonne linked to allegations of abuse - never proved - by a family member). By the age of 14, Joe was smoking cannabis and truanting. "He used to call me stupid," Yvonne says, "for allowing the family to live in a council house and that his father was living in a big house. He told us that he was going to kill his father and his grandmother. He would rant and rave, just being angry with everyone." He was already talking, "of taking the coward's way out".
Joe stopped eating family meals. His obsession with cleanliness turned into complete disregard as he refused to wash, and he would come in late at night smelling of alcohol. He began to hide scissors and kitchen knives in his bedroom. Yvonne would see him standing at his bedroom door, holding a knife over his head, which he would then bring down to his stomach. In the autumn of 2000, 14-year-old Joe began making threats against his mother, telling her that he wanted to dismember and burn her. "I just told Joseph not to be so silly and to calm down," Yvonne says. He also threatened to stab his infant brother, Jack. When Yvonne intervened, he stabbed his mother's coat, which was folded over her arm. After such outbursts, Joe would break down and cry and apologise for his behaviour. "He would say, 'I don't know why I do what I do'."
Joe was beset by irrational fears. "He would come into my bedroom at least 10 times a night," Yvonne says. He was scared of the dark. "When he wanted to walk from his bedroom-light switch to his bed, he would shout at me continuously for comfort." He developed a phobia about insects and would check every corner of a room he had entered to make sure that it was free of them. He began to write rambling letters about black holes and plagued his mother with unanswerable questions. "He could not understand why I could not understand him."
Yvonne sought psychiatric help. On one occasion, she recalls, Joe suddenly grabbed the steering wheel of the car as they were on their way to an appointment with the psychiatrist, causing the car to veer across the road.
Yvonne Scholes is an articulate, intelligent and caring woman who faced up to Joe's problems with courage and love. But, at the end of her tether and with three other children to care for (including one - Jack - with learning difficulties), the time came when she could no longer cope. In October 2001, Joe went to live with his father. However, after only six weeks, Joe's father, likewise unable to cope with his son's disruptive behaviour, had to ask him to leave. There was a brief altercation in his father's house, the police were called and Joe was later made the subject of a supervision order. In November 2001, Joe was discovered by police sleeping rough and was taken into care by Manchester social services.
Yvonne has nothing but praise for the Northenden Road children's centre in Sale. The building itself was bright, modern and purpose-built, and backed on to a park. The staff, she says, were "pleasant and kind" and "showed humanity and caring" towards Joe, in marked contrast, she says, to the prison staff into whose care Joe would soon be entrusted.
On December 6, just a week after his arrival in the children's centre, Joe went out with four young people - two boys and two girls - from the home. While at Northenden Road, staff were later to say, Joe was well-mannered and polite, but was withdrawn and kept himself to himself. So when an offer of companionship eventually came, an invitation to go out for the night, he found it difficult to resist. Joe and his companions bought vodka, which they drank. They then boarded the metro link. A separate, mixed group of teenage friends, who had just spent the evening bowling, also got on the train. Both sets got off at Brookland station in Sale. Joe's companions split into two, males in one group, females in the other. The female group approached the girls and demanded their mobile phones. When one of the victims insisted that she didn't have one, one of the girl robbers said aggressively, "Yes, you fucking have," and told them to empty their pockets. A watch was snatched from the wrist of one of the victims, two £10 notes were handed over, and one of the victims was struck across the face, causing her nose to bleed. While this was going on, the male group approached the boys. Again, the victims were asked for their mobile phones. One boy was patted down before moving off but was then, without warning, punched in the side of the face. Another of the victims was threatened if he did not hand over his wallet. For the victims, it was a frightening and very distressing experience.
Later that night, the police came to the children's centre at Northenden Road, where they recovered some of the stolen property. Joe and his companions were arrested. Yvonne was not informed of these events for some days. When she found out, she was deeply shocked. Joe was reluctant to discuss what happened, insisting to Yvonne that he had no idea when he left the home that night that the other children would do what they did, and he was adamant that he did not take part in the actual robbery.
Of course, it is usual for those accused of offences to try to minimise their culpability. However, at the subsequent trial at Minshull Street crown court, Manchester, on March 15 2002, the prosecution accepted that although he was present, Joe took no physical part in any of the robberies. "Joseph Scholes," the prosecutor told the judge, "offered no physical violence to any person on December 6 2001."
On the basis of what she had heard, Yvonne expected Joe to get a community service order. She had seen Joe five days before the trial, on Mother's Day, when they met at Yvonne's mother's house in Sale. Joe, she said, talked a lot about the past and was very sentimental. He was "utterly nervous about what was going to happen", but he would not let Yvonne or his sisters attend the trial, threatening to run away if he saw them there. Yvonne agreed not to go, not wanting to upset him further or make things worse.
Yvonne recalls standing by her car outside her mother's house that day. She offered Joe a lift back to the children's centre but he didn't want one. "He hugged me very tightly. I put my head into his neck and told him I loved him." Joe walked away and Yvonne, by then in tears, got into the car with Jack and her daughters. She had driven only a little way when she passed Joe sitting on a wall. She stopped and this time he agreed to get in. She dropped him further on, hugging him again, kissing him. "We drove off," she says, "and tooted the horn and waved to him." It was the last time she was to see her son alive.
It is at this point that David Blunkett and Lord Woolf enter the story of Joseph Scholes.
By now it seems clear that the home secretary enjoys his reputation as the bete noire of those he dismisses as "Hampstead liberals", preferring the company of the likes of Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, whom he recently toasted as the best journalist of his generation. And like Dacre's newspaper, Blunkett's rhetoric is unapologetically aggressive and authoritarian. He revels in promises of "tougher action", "cracking down", "smashing gangs", "stamping out crime" and "banging away people for a very long time". In a speech at the annual prison service conference in Nottingham, delivered the month before Joe Scholes went on trial, the home secretary focused on violent street crime, which, he claimed, was affecting the "psyche of the nation". Carjackers, he said, would be put away for "as long as I can make it stick". And, ominously for Joe, he publicly backed Lord Woolf's call, made the previous month, for all mobile phone thieves to be sent to prison.
The lord chief justice does not share Blunkett's crass, in-your-face populism, and he is admired by many civil liberties lawyers. However, in January 2001, one month after the robbery at Brooklands station in Sale, and two months before Joe would go on trial, Britain's senior judge, sitting in London, re-examined the case of two muggers, referred to the court of appeal by Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, after the original sentences were deemed "unduly lenient". Increasing the sentence of one of the muggers from six months to three and a half years, Woolf said that a custodial sentence "will be the only option available", save in exceptional circumstances. The lowest appropriate sentence, he said, was 18 months, the maximum, five years.
Many observers of the legal scene were surprised by what Woolf had done. Only the year before, he had spoken at length about the urgent need to reduce the prison population, and he appealed to politicians on all sides to stop playing "the prison card". Prison numbers, as Martin Narey, the director general of the prison service, said in response to Blunkett's latest "get tough" policy, were going up by more than 700 a week. "We are struggling to cope with the insanity of a prison population which is hurtling towards 70,000," he said. Narey might also have added that we are locking up record numbers of women and we are, in the home secretary's favoured phrase, banging up more children than ever before.
Even the most die-hard supporters of get- tough policy-making have to acknowledge that this kind of zero tolerance approach cannot, by its very nature, take account of individual circumstances. There is collateral damage. So the minute Woolf delivered his judgment in the court of appeal, Joe Scholes was sentenced to death.
Yvonne remembers the day of Joe's trial. It was Friday, March 15 2002. Forbidden by Joe to attend, she had waited anxiously at home. She kept ringing the children's centre to ask if there had been a verdict. As the day wore on, she became increasingly distressed, crying all the time. In the early evening, a member of staff called to tell her that Joe had been sentenced to a two-year detention and training order. She "could not believe - and cannot believe to this day - that any humane, reasonable person could have given someone like Joe a custodial sentence".
Everyone - Joe's social workers, his psychiatrist, his lawyers - had told the judge, Mr Justice Lever, in the most unequivocal terms that there was a very high risk Joe would kill himself if he went to jail. The judge ignored their warning. "It is an unhappy fact that these serious offences of street robbery are against a background of anxiety and fear the length and breadth of this country," he said, "and only in the last couple of weeks, the lord chief justice has said what has always been the policy in my court, that is that people who go around terrifying people, committing street robberies, receive immediate custodial sentences."
Even though he had been sentenced to detention, the authorities did not have to send Joe to prison. He could instead have been allocated to a local authority secure unit, where at least he would have had better chances of receiving the care he so desperately needed. However, there is a chronic shortage of rooms in secure units - they are expensive and, put brutally, prison is the cheaper option - and so Joe was taken to Stoke Heath Young Offenders Institute, near Market Drayton in Shropshire, a decision whose appropriateness was later questioned by the internal prison department report into Joe's death. The same report said that Stoke Heath's healthcare centre, into which Joe was received, "is recognised as inadequate and unacceptable. Although funding has been approved for building a new facility, the governor is unclear about timescales due to difficulties in clarifying from where the required funding will come."
Once Yvonne was over the initial shock, she rang the prison on the Saturday and Sunday and was assured that all was well. She spoke on the phone to Joe and asked for a visiting order, which duly arrived on the following Thursday. Yvonne made plans to travel from North Wales, where she had bought a house and was now living with her daughters and Jack. Meanwhile, she wrote to Joe every day. He sounded, "sad, upset, shocked, frightened. He was being brave, for us, he didn't want to upset us, but he told the prison staff he couldn't cope." Joseph Scholes was entering the last week of his life.
What went on during that week was examined in some length during the inquest. Prison staff, questioned by Karon Monaghan, the barrister acting on behalf of Yvonne, who was greatly assisted by Deborah Coles of the campaigning organisation Inquest and her solicitor, Mark Scott, admitted that, yes, Stoke Heath had been the subject of a highly critical report by the prisons inspectorate in 2000, but they pointed out that an inspection the following year had commended staff on subsequent improvements.
There also was a bit of a to-do over what constituted a "strip cell". A strip cell is a room with basic fixed furniture, and without normal bedding or any creature comforts - television, radio, family photographs, posters and so forth. It is, if not entirely bare, then depressingly and oppressively sterile. In theory, the use of strip cells in the management of those thought to be at risk of suicide or self-harm was eliminated by prison service order 2000/2700.
The head of healthcare at Stoke Heath, Dominic Donaldson, accepted that strip conditions, which are likely to be challenged under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, were "utterly untherapeutic" and did not lessen suicidal feelings. Prisoners, he conceded, often felt worse for the experience, feeling degraded and punished. However, he denied that there was any such thing as a strip cell in the healthcare centre of Stoke Heath. What he had, Donaldson insisted, were "safe cells". After sustained questioning by Monaghan, it became clear that the difference between a "safe" and a "strip" cell was entirely semantic. Strip cells had been abolished simply by changing the name. The same was true of "strip clothing". Were the jurors who looked over this degrading garment imagining one of their own children being forced to wear it? They certainly looked shocked. Donaldson rejected Monaghan's claim that this was in fact "strip clothing". It is "referred to as safe clothing", he insisted. "Some staff refer to them as strip because that is old terminology. In my time I have said it's safe clothing and that's what it is."
Too often with arguments like this, you can lose sight of the wood because there are just too many trees, and too often they end up obscuring the central point. And the central - and unmissable - point here was surely that if the parents or guardians of a 16-year-old boy were to keep him in a strip cell or safe cell, with only a horseblanket to dress in, they would be prosecuted for cruelty. Yet it's legal for the state to do it.
Joseph Scholes repeatedly told prison staff that he would kill himself. And that's exactly what he did. At approximately 3.20pm on March 24 2002, Joe's body was found hanging from the bars of his cell window. He was taken by air ambulance to North Staffordshire hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival.
Yvonne was making sandwiches and looking at the map with one of her daughters, trying to work out how to get to Shropshire from their new home in North Wales when there was a knock on the door. It was about 7pm. It was a local policeman. He asked if she was Yvonne Scholes. She answered yes. He asked if she was alone.
Yvonne said her daughter was here. "It just clicked into place," she says. "I remember running off from him into the house screaming, 'He's dead, he's dead!' It was shocking for Joanna and Jack. The policeman followed me into the house. I feel sad for him, he was trying to talk but Joanna and I were running to the bathroom and being sick, falling down on the floor, screaming at the policeman that they'd promised to look after him.
"The policeman was very kind," she says. "He stayed 20 minutes, and gave me the phone number of Shrewsbury CID. There was nothing he could do. We were lucky to have such a kind officer."
Yvonne sees the pain of Joe's loss on the faces of her children every day. Supported by Inquest and by a number of MPs, she has repeatedly called for a public inquiry into Joe's death (the coroner, John Ellery, lent his voice to this demand at the close of the inquest) - there has never been an inquiry into the death of a child in custody. Blunkett has ignored her. "The Home Office should hang their heads in shame," she says. "Three children have died in prison since Joe died. I'm at a loss to understand why people in this country aren't bothered. If it happens to children in our own country, we close our eyes and ears to it. I feel disappointed in our fellow man."
At the opening of the inquest, during the lunch break, Deborah Coles introduced me to Dr Barry Goldson, an academic at Liverpool University. On learning I was preparing an article on Joe's death, Goldson went into formal academic mode. He quoted figures from different European countries that showed Britain was at the top end of the scale when it came to the numbers of children it locked up. He quoted studies on youth offending, rehabilitation and sentencing policy, and offered to send me articles he had written himself. It was all very precise, very scholarly. And then he paused, looked me in the eye and said, "But you have to ask yourself: what the fuck was the judge thinking sending him to prison?"
That night - just a few hours after the inquest's first day closed - a 15-year-old boy called Gareth Paul Myatt died at Rainsbrook training centre, run by Group 4. He arrived the previous Friday and had survived all of two days in prison
· Ronan Bennett is author of Havoc in its Third Year (Bloomsbury)
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