William Lindsay’s suicide is an indictment of the treatment of young offenders

Written by Dani Garavelli on 19 December 2018 in Comment

There are fundamental flaws in the way we handle young offenders, says Dani Garavelli

Dani Garavelli - Image credit: David Anderson/Holyrood

In a lifetime of journalism, there are a handful of stories that get under your skin; stories you become so emotionally invested in that you can’t seem to let them go.

For me, there will always be Nikki Allan, a seven-year-old Sunderland girl murdered in 1992.

My memories of the aftermath of Nikki’s death are so visceral, I can instantly summon up her smiling features, her red school sweatshirt and the run-down flat in Wear Garth where she spent her short life.

I remember the screaming in the courtroom when the man accused of killing her was acquitted.

In idle moments, I Google his name to see if he ever surfaced again.

If I am still alive in 26 years’ time, I imagine I will still be thinking about William Lindsay’s bright red hair and his grieving mother.

William is the 16-year-old who killed himself in Polmont after walking into a police station with a knife and laying it on the counter.

He had spent his life in care and was more of a danger to himself than to other people, but he was sent to the young offenders’ institution and, despite warnings about his mental fragility, was locked up alone in his cell.

There, he wrote a letter describing his distress.

How haunting is that image? A boy in jail for the first time, looking for a ligature point and easily finding one.

Of course, William had committed an offence; he had been charged with (though not convicted of) possession of a weapon.

But is incarcerating troubled kids really the way we want to go?

Wasn’t the whole point of the original Kilbrandon Report, which led to the setting up of the children’s hearing system, that the needs of young people who offend ought to be considered along with their deeds?

Perhaps the reason I was so shocked by William’s death is that I continued to believe Scotland’s approach to young offenders was better than England’s; that, despite our age of criminal responsibility being one of the lowest in the world (eight), the focus was on welfare over punishment.

The suicide of William, and others in Polmont, has swept all complacency away.

There are fundamental flaws in the way we handle young offenders and, while the principle of the children’s hearing system is still sound, it is not always capable of protecting the vulnerable.

In the last few weeks, there has been much talk about the age of criminal responsibility.

The government is committed to raising it from eight to 12, but some campaigners want it to be as high as 16.

In a country where you can’t legally drink until you are 18, perhaps this makes sense.

On the other hand, it is possible to infantilise young people. We need to decide what we mean by the word ‘child’.

For me, however, this scandal raised more pressing issues.

Almost every inquiry into the death of a child from the 1970s onwards has highlighted a lack of collaboration between different agencies.

That’s one of the things the named person provision was trying to address.

But GDPR rules means concerns around information sharing have heightened.

What did that mean for William? Did the prison officers at Polmont have access to his records when they took him off the prison’s suicide prevention strategy?

Had they read the reports detailing his history of self-harm? I doubt it.

Another priority is keeping under-18s out of the adult system.

The Crown ruled William’s case should be heard in a sheriff court, not by a children’s panel, even though he was under a compulsory supervision order.

Then, after his suicide, it emerged there were 55 under-18s in Polmont.

How can this be acceptable when the Scottish Government is supposed to be committed to reducing the prison population?

To keep young people out of jail, we need to provide community-based alternatives and somewhere to put those for whom they are deemed inappropriate.

This brings me to secure units. It isn’t clear whether there were genuinely no spaces available for William or if social workers were misinformed, but that is certainly what the sheriff was told.

Either way, there is something wrong with a system in which four out of five of the units are run by charities and take referrals from English local authorities in order to break even.

There are whispers of a lack of transparency and poor communication between the estate and social workers.

The children’s hearings system appears to be struggling.

A recent report – Kilbrandon Again –  identified weaknesses such as a lack of continuity and long-term record-keeping.

It also suggested a discrete justice system for 16-21-year-olds.

All of this requires more discussion. But what is evident is that William’s suicide was not merely an indictment of the provision of mental health care in the prison service, but of the treatment of young offenders in the round.

The Scottish justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, has ordered a review into the deaths of young people in custody, which is good, but it mustn’t deflect from a consideration of the wider issues.

If I am still thinking about William’s death in 2044, I hope it is in the knowledge that it served as a catalyst for change and a more coherent approach to troubled young people.

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