Why we should abolish imprisonment for children and young people

Dr David Scott takes a look at the consequences of imprisoning children and young people, and the alternative solutions to this.

Image by ErikaWittlieb on pixabay.com under Creative Commons.

Of the 28 different countries in the European Union in 2018, life imprisonment for children had been abolished in 22.

Child life sentences

A child prisoner includes children who are held in Secure Children Homes; Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions (the later hold around 70% of all children in custody).

When prison takes life

The regimes experienced by young people and child prisoners as one of deliberate harm which leads to thousands of children being physically, psychologically and emotionally damaged every year.

Young people are emotionally vulnerable and more likely to find the loss of personal relationships on the outside harder to cope with than adults.

Coping with prison life is a tenuous, relative and fluid concept that ebbs and flows over time. The real pains of imprisonment are to be found in the denial of personal autonomy, feelings of time consciousness, and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away . It is also clear that custody is experienced differently by young people. Young people are emotionally vulnerable and more likely to find the loss of personal relationships on the outside harder to cope with than adults. It has long been noted how suicidal ideation is heavily influenced by the nature of responses by significant others and the ‘end of hope’ . Young people also have less life experience on which to rely to help to deal with problems associated with prison life, or to manage a suicidal impulse when things are looking bleak and hopeless.

Where do we go from here?

I would therefore like to make the following three brief conclusions:

  • Raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility immediately to 14 so that we match most other European Union Countries and call for an independent review to explore the possibility of raising this to 16 as soon as possible; and
  • Recognise that the pains of imprisonment are potentially deadly for children and young people, and therefore we need to think again about what we mean by child prison as a ‘last resort’.

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