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Blog post: The justice system must be centered on children’s rights – otherwise lives are in danger


Wendy Sinclair-Gieben – Scotland’s Chief Inspector of Prisons – has sent a proposal to the Scottish Government on removing children from prison custody in Scotland.

We completely agree with her – prison is never appropriate for children. Its recommendations need to be implemented urgently.

Scotland must do better. We must treat children in the justice system first and foremost as children. Instead, we criminalize children at 12, imprison them at 16, painting a grim picture of our commitment to children’s rights. This is particularly worrying with the delays in incorporating the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

How many children are detained in prison?

Last week, 14 children were in prison in Scotland. Ten were awaiting trial, three were convicted and one was awaiting trial. People imagine that only children have committed serious crimes in prison. But we have recently heard of children imprisoned for lack of safe beds, because they were homeless or because they failed to appear as witnesses in a criminal trial.

It is wrong and it is a violation of their human rights.

Every child in the justice system has the right to be treated with humanity, dignity and in a way that takes into account their age, views and best interests. Often these children have traumatic childhood experiences – they need help, but they say the system shames them, punishes them, or writes them off.

We need to stop using the criminal law to address harmful, upsetting or traumatized behaviors of children.

What is the alternative to prison?

Removing a child’s liberty should only ever be done as a last resort, for the shortest time possible and should always be done in an age-appropriate facility.

Instead of prison, children should be placed in a secure alternative care environment if necessary to ensure their safety or the safety of others. This protects the public while meeting the needs of a vulnerable child and providing care, rehabilitation and recovery, rather than mere punishment.

In the rare situation where a child under the age of 18 has been sentenced to a long term for committing a serious crime, they must first be placed in a secure care facility, before completing their custodial sentence as as an adult in prison.

What is the impact of prison on children?

Even short periods of child detention can have profound and lasting consequences, particularly on a child’s emotional and social development.

Over the past ten years, children and young people have tragically committed suicide in prison.

The findings presented by HMIPS in the expert review of the provision of mental health services in HMP YOI Polmont were a chilling reminder of the increased risk of detention of children in prisons: “What has become clear. .. is that being traumatized, being young, being in pre-trial detention and being in the first three months of detention increases the risk of suicide.

A recent survey of 16 and 17 year olds in Polmont found that 83% had been strip searched and 42% had been isolated for punishment. This violates their right to be protected against torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. I met some of the children as part of the HMIPS inspection in 2019 and again last year during the pre-inspection survey, and heard directly from them about their lives before the prison and their experiences in prison.

What should happen now?

The Scottish government says children will no longer be held in prison by 2024. It’s too long to wait. Hundreds of children will be affected by then.

Some children can pay for the lack of urgency with their lives.

Scotland’s Chief Inspector of Prisons showed the Scottish Government what needed to be done and that it could be done.

We need immediate action.

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