Comment: It's time we stopped putting children in prison
In September, 17 children under the age of 18 were being held in prison in Scotland. Fourteen of them were waiting to appear in front of a jury, which they are considered too young to serve on, all the while being held in a prison they would need adult supervision to visit.
There are many things in this country you can’t do before you’re 18 years old. You can’t legally buy alcohol or cigarettes and you can’t serve as a frontline soldier. Each of these restrictions are invariably agreed to by society in the name of safety for children.
After all, a child should have every opportunity to thrive and lead a long and healthy life. Yet somehow, that desire to keep children safe stops short of keeping them out of prison.
As a nation we’re growing every single day to understand the impact of trauma and of adverse childhood experiences, and how that can impact on people’s lives well into adulthood. Much of this work stems from the wide-ranging and widely signed up to CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study.
A key tool used by the advocates of this trauma work includes the ‘Ace Score’. A ten-point score which, whilst simple, attempts to understand the trauma experienced by an individual.
One of the measures of whether someone has experienced an adverse childhood trauma marker is having a parent in prison. It’s considered to have such an impact that prison estates and governments around the world are moving mountains to soften the experience for children visiting their parents in prison.
A measure which doesn’t exist in the study is whether you were in prison as a child. I can’t say definitively why this marker isn’t there. However, I can imagine that it was because the very idea of a nation imprisoning children, a majority without conviction, seems absurd.
Across Scotland, organisations such as the Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice have called for children to be offered alternatives to custody in prison. In November 2020, Claire Lightowler, the organisation’s then director and Bruce Adamson, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner, co-authored a blog on World Children’s Day calling attention to this practice.
Within this, they described the practice as “one of the most serious decisions a state can impose,” the impact for a child being all too real. “For a child, it is particularly damaging because they miss out on critical stages of their emotional and social development,” they wrote.
It was a belief that was backed by the Independent Care Review, the conclusions of which were published in February 2020 and were agreed to unanimously in an ordinarily split parliament.
In the meantime, the number of children in our prisons has barely changed.
Social policy change can take time to implement. People understand that and they place faith in their elected officials to ensure that policies they back are steered into law. After all, isn’t that ultimately the duty of our elected officials?
Sometimes however, policy change is rushed through in the face of profound evidence, public demonstration, or political convenience. So, policy change coming at lightning speed isn’t an impossibility.
It’s three years since William Lindsay, who was a child being held in a Scottish prison, died through suicide. William had not been convicted of a crime, and like the fourteen children being held on remand in Scottish prisons in September of this year, William would not have even been allowed to attend a visit at the prison where he died, without the presence of a supervising adult.
The very fact we have any children still in our prisons after his death should bring shame on those with the power to make change – every single day.
There’s a debate to be had about the age of criminal responsibility and at what age you believe someone should be held criminally responsible for their actions. It is difficult to believe that, given everything we know, anyone understands keeping children in an adult prison as justice.
Some will argue there are a few exceptions to this, and those cases are widely known across Europe, but they aren’t what we’re discussing here.
The First Minister is often quoted in her ambition for Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up. It’s an ambition I share, and I believe many across our country do so as well.
The sad reality is that children in Scotland who are kept in prison may never grow up, because if anything can prematurely end a childhood, it’s death.
Inverary Jail closed in 1889. It’s now a tourist attraction which markets itself as being a terrifying place where men, women and children served prison time together as though it’s a relic of our past. If only that was the case.
Ultimately, keeping children out of prison isn’t a new idea. The conclusion of the Independent Care Review, which the Scottish Parliament agreed to, states that children should be cared for outside of prison. If the Scottish political establishment intends to keep the promise, they know what to do.