Justice system must be centred around children’s rights – otherwise lives are at risk 

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

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

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

How many children are being held in prison? 

Last week, 14 children were in prison in Scotland. Ten were awaiting trial, three have been sentenced and one was awaiting sentence. People imagine it’s only children who have committed serious crimes in prison. But we have heard recently about children imprisoned because of a lack of secure beds, because they were homeless, or for failing to turn up as a witness in a criminal trial.  

This is wrong and it’s a breach of their human rights.  

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

We must stop using criminal law to address harmful, distressed or traumatised behaviour by children.  

What is the alternative to prison? 

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

Instead of prison, children should be placed in an alternative secure care environment if necessary to keep themselves or others safe. This protects the public while meeting a vulnerable child’s needs and offering care, rehabilitation and recovery, rather than just punishment.  

In rare situations where a child under 18 has been given a long sentence due to committing a serious crime, they should be in secure care accommodation first, before completing their custodial sentence as an adult in prison.  

What is the impact of prison on children? 

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

In the last ten years, children and young people have tragically died by suicide in prison. 

The findings set out by HMIPS in the Expert Review of Mental Health Provision in HMP YOI Polmont were a chilling reminder of the increased risk of detaining children in prisons: “What has become clear…is that being traumatised, being young, being held on remand and being in the first three months of custody 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 from 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 prison, and their experiences while in prison.   

What must happen now? 

The Scottish Government says children will no longer be detained in prison by 2024. That’s too long to wait. Hundreds of children will be affected between now and then. 

Some children may pay for the lack of urgency with their life.  

The Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland has shown the Scottish Government what needs to be done and that it can be done.  

We need immediate action. 

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