Prisons inspector wants no under-18s locked up in Scottish jails

No one under the age of 18 should be sent to jail, Scotland’s chief inspector of prisons has insisted.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben is hoping for legislation to be implemented that would bring an end to the imprisonment of 16 and 17-year-olds by the end of this month.

She said Covid-19 placed a spotlight on children and young people in prison, with their treatment and conditions comparable to the adult population’s extreme restrictions and in stark contrast to the regime that children held in the secure care estate experienced.

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She said while the Scottish Government is committed to removing children under 18 from the prison estate, “it’s not expediting it fast enough”.

Polmont Young Offenders Institution, where teenagers are locked behind bars.Polmont Young Offenders Institution, where teenagers are locked behind bars.
Polmont Young Offenders Institution, where teenagers are locked behind bars.

In her proposal to Scottish ministers, she said the way in which children are prosecuted and imprisoned in Scotland – especially when they have not yet been convicted – is a breach of their human rights.

She spoke to the PA news agency about a recent survey of a small number of 16 and 17-year olds in HMP YOI Polmont, the largest young offenders institution in Scotland, and described the results as “shocking.”

The survey found 83% of children in Polmont had been strip-searched, 42% had been isolated for punishment, and 27% had been physically restrained.

“Most of them said they were locked up 22 hours a day,” Ms Sinclair-Gieben said.

Wendy Sinclair-Gieben wants no under 18s locked up in prison.Wendy Sinclair-Gieben wants no under 18s locked up in prison.
Wendy Sinclair-Gieben wants no under 18s locked up in prison.

Inmates under the age of 21 are usually sent to a young offenders institution until they are old enough for an adult prison.

The chief inspector said even though Polmont is doing its job, and prisoners said staff help them feel calm and they feel safe, it is still being run as a prison, with the same restrictions as adult institutions.

“When you’re applying the pandemic guidance by Public Health Scotland, they are applying it to young people as well as to adults, without an impact assessment for young people.

“It’s very worrying.”

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Ms Sinclair-Gieben said the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that children must not be deprived of their liberty unless they pose a serious and imminent risk of harm to themselves or others.

However, in Scotland children are known to be incarcerated in YOIs, either on remand or after sentencing, where this is not the case, she said.

She called for the Scottish Government to directly fund places in secure accommodation instead.

“We must change the perception that people under 18 have to go to prison because their crimes are so offensive,” Ms Sinclair Gieben added.

“Secure care systems manage people with violent, challenging behaviour extremely well and we need to allow them to do it.

“Scotland must grasp the opportunity and expedite its plans to remove the remaining small number of children from prison entirely.”

Children and Young People’s Commissioner Bruce Adamson echoed her calls, and said the change has been “long overdue”.

He said most of the young people in Polmont are not convicted of the most serious crimes, and of the 14 currently there, 10 are still awaiting sentencing.

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But he said even those under 18 who commit the most serious crimes should not go to prison.

The Scottish Government commits to addressing the proposal by 2024, but organisations including the Children’s and Young People’s Centre for Justice and Community Justice Scotland have also pushed ministers for the change.

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