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Tuesday 7 February 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Column We continue to put children in adult prisons. It is utterly unacceptable.
Young people have the highest rates of reoffending, but they also have the greatest capacity for change – scientific evidence proves this.

ON TUESDAY 9 December 2014, there were 21 boys detained within the adult prison system in Ireland. Eight of those were 17-year-old boys detained on remand (awaiting trial) in St Patrick’s Institution, a prison which has received serious criticism dating as back as 1985, and which the Inspector of Prisons has stated unequivocally must be closed and its name “consigned to history”. Another 13 are detained under sentence in a separate wing of Wheatfield Place of Detention, where conditions and regimes are better, but it is nevertheless an adult prison.

Detaining children in adult prison facilities has been condemned by international human rights monitoring bodies. It is contrary to international human rights law, and is utterly unacceptable in any country which professes to adhere to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Prison is an environment and regime which is wholly inappropriate for the detention of children. Young people have the highest rates of reoffending, but they also have the greatest capacity for change – scientific evidence proves this. The right interventions, at the right time, with this age group can have a profound positive impact on the future directions of their lives, away from criminality and towards participation and citizenship – which in turn means less crime and fewer potential victims; the wrong interventions only serve to compound the marginalisation and social exclusion which underlies most offending behaviour. And prison is the wrong intervention with this age group.

A dark chapter in Ireland’s history 

There is a good news story here: hard-won commitments to end the imprisonment of children in St Patrick’s Institution will be met in early 2015, as the first phase of building at the children detention facilities at Oberstown in north Dublin is completed. This will bring to a close a particularly dark chapter in Ireland’s response to offending by young people.

The children detention school model seeks not only to contain but to address the causes of offending behaviour in this age group. Ireland’s children detention school system, under the Irish Youth Justice Service, which itself now sits within the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, has the expressed goal of being a model of best practice, focussed on care, education and rehabilitation. This is very positive.

Nevertheless, it is vital to ensure that the detention or imprisonment of a child (whether on remand or under sentence) is only ever used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, as required by the Children Act 2001. IPRT, along with the Ombudsman for Children, the Children’s Rights Alliance, EPIC (Empowering People in Care) and many other youth justice advocates, is concerned about the overuse of detention of children for welfare reasons.

Detention, like imprisonment, must be reserved for the most serious offences and for those offenders for whom the range of alternatives – including day centre orders, probation orders, mentoring orders – are deemed not appropriate. Judges who decide to send under-18s to detention must state their reasons for doing so in an open court. This is the law.

Regime appropriate to age group 

Often children are remanded to detention because they fail to meet their bail conditions, such as a failure to turn up to the right place, at the right time. A formal, sufficiently resourced and nationwide system of bail support is needed to support vulnerable children with complex personal or familial challenges to successfully manage their bail conditions, thus reducing the number of children being detained on remand.

For the small number of cases where detention is deemed necessary, it should be in a regime appropriate to this age group. With the expected transfer of 17-year-olds from St Patrick’s and Wheatfield to Oberstown, it is imperative that the ethos at the children detention school campus remains resolutely focused on the provision of adequate expert therapeutic care, education and welfare, and staffed by sufficient numbers of highly trained and dedicated staff, fully conversant with the necessary skills as well as knowledge of legislation, regulations, policies, procedures and protocols. It is crucial that the adult prison ethos and regime does not transfer with the 17-year-olds to Oberstown.

A potential for abuse

Our shared past has taught us that wherever there exists a closed institution housing a vulnerable population there is the potential for abuse. Informed by our experience of inspection and accountability in the adult prison system, IPRT strongly believes that robust and regular independent inspections are imperative, as well as provision of age-appropriate complaints mechanisms. The complaints remit of the Ombudsman for Children now extends not only to the children detention schools but also St Patrick’s Institution and Wheatfield Place of Detention, and this system is working well.

Where the protection of children is concerned, inspection reports must be published regularly and promptly. While IPRT is confident in the rigorous approach of HIQA, which is tasked with inspecting the children detention facilities in Ireland, an inspection report on the facilities has not been published since Nov 2013 (on an inspection carried out in June 2013). Monitoring must be adequately resourced to provide robust reports, preferably on unannounced inspections, with increased frequency. An approach which measures the quality of detention by assessing the outcomes on re-entry to the community is particularly appropriate.

Children in the detention school system will often have had an experience of the care system, with many under HSE care at the time of their committal, and some coming directly into the detention system from secure care. This group is among the most vulnerable group of children in Ireland; many of the traumatic factors which led to the children being taken into care in the first place are also at root of their offending behaviour. The children detention schools system invests its resources into addressing these challenges, and what can be extremely challenging behaviour of these young people.

Therefore, we have a duty to support these young people leaving detention in their efforts to desist from offending behaviour, through the provision of aftercare, safe housing and support, and to ensure they do not return to the very chaotic conditions which gave rise to offending behaviour in the first place. It could change their lives, and in turn lead to safer communities for everyone.

Deirdre Malone is Executive Director of the Irish Penal Reform Trust:

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