Scotland needs to live up to the 'Promise' to stop locking up children – Karyn McCluskey

When I talk about justice, I often speak about big, complicated things and large numbers of people. It can be overwhelming.

It's time for Scotland to stop locking up children in places like Polmont Young Offenders Institution, says Karyn McCluskey (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA)

I see people taking a deep breath and I can almost hear them thinking it seems too big to change. So let me give you a number that you could make a difference to: 16.

So what’s so special about 16? I’m talking about 16 children under the age of 18 locked up in a Young Offender Institution. The majority are awaiting a trial but haven’t been found guilty of any crimes.

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Covid-19 has lengthened the time they’re held in custody and release more uncertain. It seems odd to me, in a country where we talk of compassion and freedom, that we still accept locking up children is something we do. I wonder how history will judge us. Not well I think.

Many of these children will have experienced the care system during their lives. They will have experienced trauma, for some the most terrible of backgrounds and histories, enough to make you weep.

These are children for whom a loving, stable home is the stuff of books or television, but not for them.

These are children who are complex, sometimes difficult, whose ability to communicate and express how they feel may be limited. They may come with frustration and sometimes aggression.

These are children who often lack stable accommodation and have had limited support in the community.

These are children.

Taking away a child’s liberty is damaging and will have deep, long-lasting consequences. It’s effectively snatching away their childhood as they miss out on critical stages of their emotional and social development.

Here’s another 16 for you. In 2018, I wrote a column in this paper about William Lindsay, who lived a life filled with chaos, danger, unpredictability and fear and who was remanded to a Young Offender Institution, and found dead less than 48 hours later.

William was 16 years old. How we beat our chests then, said it shouldn’t happen again, that YOI is no place for children, that the risk of self-harm and suicide is well-evidenced, that they need love, mental health support, a stable home. Yet here we are.

I have little doubt the children remanded right now might need protection from themselves or others from them, but there is a solution to this.

We could have no child under the age of 18 in our custodial system. We can manage the risks of almost all of these children in intensive fostering for example or on supervised bail, supported by highly trained and experienced workers or for those who require the most supervision, in secure care, where they can be nurtured, cared for and kept safe.

A year ago, the Independent Care Review published its conclusions in The Promise reports. It told Scotland to stop locking children up. At the time so many committed to keep that promise; organisations, politicians and press spoke, wrote and tweeted about it. We all agreed we would look after them, all of Scotland’s children.

So now comes the difficult bit, the time for the rubber to hit the road. The time to act. So let’s dry our eyes and get on with keeping that Promise.

I remember William Lindsay.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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