Recently a number of news outlets covered the story that young people in HMP Polmont who had been given mobile phones used these to make “mischief” calls to the police.
We are disappointed that some journalists chose to focus on this misuse of the mobile phones. A focus on this behaviour alone wilfully ignores much greater questions surrounding the extremely restrictive conditions in which Scotland tolerates holding some of our most vulnerable children and young people, and whether children should ever be imprisoned at all.
The latest figures published by the SPS show[i] that on the week ending June 26th, there were 221 young people aged 16-20 held in Scottish prisons. The number of 16 to 17 year olds in prison actually rose 40% over the last month; the numbers are small (from 15 to 21), but the trend for the very youngest in prison is worrying. Of all young people, 69 (or 35%) of 18-20 year olds were awaiting trial, as were 13 (or 63%) of 16 or 17 year olds. These figures – and particularly the number of children and young people being held awaiting trial – should provoke much greater outrage than a small number of nuisance phone calls.
Prison is not an appropriate environment for children
Even when we are not faced with a global health pandemic, prison is not an appropriate environment for children. In 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment highlighted the grave risks imprisonment poses to children’s safety, wellbeing, development and mental health:
Children deprived of their liberty are at a heightened risk of violence, abuse and acts of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Even very short periods of detention can undermine a child’s psychological and physical well-being and compromise cognitive development. Children deprived of liberty are at a heightened risk of suffering depression and anxiety, and frequently exhibit symptoms consistent with post- traumatic stress disorder. Reports on the effects of depriving children of liberty have found higher rates of suicide and self-harm, mental disorder and developmental problems.
The risk of suicide and self-harm in Young Offenders Institutes cannot be ignored in Scotland. As the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice argue, not only do young people in custody often not feel safe, but imprisoning children and young people can have tragic consequences, with 24 deaths of young people under the age of 25 recorded between 2009 and 2019. The suicide rate in prison is 10 times the rate of suicide for younger age groups outside prison.
Further, young people held in Scottish prisons are a particularly vulnerable group. Whilst the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland has been raised from 8 to 12, research shows that cognitive and psychosocial development continues at least until age 25. A wealth of research shows that the young people who are held in Scotland’s prisons have significant experiences of adversities, including but not limited to: victimisation; poverty; loss; abuse, trauma; family breakdown; parental ill health; homelessness; mental health difficulties; and substance misuse[ii]. Almost half of young people in Polmont reported being in care as a child[iii]; however the charity Who Cares Scotland has argued that this is an underestimate of true numbers of care experienced young people in prison.
COVID 19 and the increased risks of custody
Increased health risks
As we have argued elsewhere, prisons are an ideal environment for the virus to spread. Many people held in Scottish prisons suffer poor health and are consequently more likely to be vulnerable to the virus. Yet, there is little space to self-isolate, as many prisoners are already sharing a cell. With regard to Polmont specifically, a lack of support for health care staff, and a lack of understanding amongst managers as to how this is essential in providing high quality care, was identified as an issue in the most recent inspection. Scotland may have avoided the worst scenarios of infection in prison, but this has required incredibly tough forms of isolation and loss of contact with loved ones. This has affected all prisoners, but research shows family support is particularly crucial for younger people.
Reduced legal protections
Changes to the Prison Rules Scotland allow the SPS to provide an extremely restricted regime as a means of preventing the spread of the virus. The Scottish Human Rights Commission has recently written to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee warning of potential breaches to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits torture and inhumane and degrading treatment. This letter highlights particular concerns surrounding prisoners being confined to their cells for almost 24 hrs a day; a lack of access to showers, recreation and outdoor exercise; limited contact with lawyers; and greatly reduced family contact.
Damage to mental health
That the Commission are concerned about solitary confinement in cells is particularly troubling in regard to children and young people, not least because access to time outside for young people in Polmont had already been raised as an issue with Prison Monitors before this crisis began. There is also clear evidence maximising the time young people can spend outside their cell, the provision of stimulating activities and support for meaningful social relationships are key factors in promoting the wellbeing of young people in custody and reducing the risk of suicide.
We also know from research with the prison population more generally that solitary confinement can cause multiple, and potentially permanent, psychiatric harms. Yet any mention of the damage done by imprisonment to the mental health of young people has been entirely absent from the reporting. This is particularly shocking given the recent history of Polmont. Only last year an HMIPS Expert Review of mental health services in the prison was published; a report specifically requested by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice following the tragic deaths of Katie Allan and William Lindsay (Brown).
Even if journalists had felt the story of the misuse of mobile phones to be truly newsworthy, failing to consider how the prison conditions in which young people are being held might have led to this behaviour shows a clear lack of compassion and critical insight.
Damage to family relationships
Indeed, more insightful coverage of this story might have asked why mobile phones were only made available to young people in Polmont on June 17th, more than three months after all visits to prison were cancelled. This is despite the recommendations of the HMIPS expert review, made in 2019, that the introduction of in-cell telephones should be considered as part of a suicide and self-harm prevention strategy for young people. These were echoed in the most recent inspection of Polmont.
Such technology is not only necessary to support the emotional wellbeing of young people in custody; it will also benefit their children. Statistics suggest that one fifth of young people in custody have at least one child; that the vast majority of these young men were actively involved parents before they were sentenced (76%); and virtually all planned to care for their children upon release (94%)[iv]. As these children are likely to be very young, contact with them will be difficult to sustain by phone or letter. The provision of regular video visits must therefore be a particular priority for young people in Polmont.
What should be done?
Rather than punitive action, what is required is an acknowledgement of the vulnerability of young people in custody, and the risk the risk that the current Covid restrictions present to their wellbeing and human rights.
The current public health crisis makes the need to reduce the number of young people in Scottish prisons particularly urgent, as the pandemic has seen increased risks to health, mental wellbeing, and family ties, coupled with a limited regime and weakened legal protections. However, we should also ask pressing questions as to why imprisonment plays such a central role in our youth justice system, and if this achieves justice at all.
Such a debate is necessary because not only have justice experienced young people suffered considerable adversity, but the systems which led to their imprisonment discriminate against them on the basis of this vulnerability. The ground-breaking Edinburgh Study, a longitudinal project involving more than 4,000 participants, demonstrates that the criminal justice system targets and discriminates against young people living in poverty. As the study directors, Professors Lesley McAra and Susan McVie, argue:
“The youth and adult criminal justice systems appear to punish the poor and reproduce the very conditions that entrench people in poverty and make violence more likely.”
Prisons are not only profoundly damaging to young people, they also fail to protect communities or reduce future violence or victimisation. A critical and responsible public media could, if it were brave enough to confront these issues, play a crucial role in beginning an inclusive public discussion which questions whether our systems and institutions truly achieve justice for young people in Scotland.
[i] Scottish Prison Service (2020), Prison Statistics, Accessible here: https://www.sps.gov.uk/Corporate/Information/SPSPopulation.aspx
[ii] Nolan D, Dyer F and Vaswani N. (2018) ‘Just a wee boy not cut out for prison’: Policy and reality in children and young people’s journeys through justice in Scotland. Criminology & Criminal Justice 18: 533-547.
[iii] Scottish Prison Service (2018), Young People in Custody 2017: 16th Survey Bulletin. Accessible here: https://www.sps.gov.uk/Corporate/Publications/Publication-6075.aspx
[iv] Scottish Prison Service (2018), Young People in Custody 2017: 16th Survey Bulletin. Accessible here: https://www.sps.gov.uk/Corporate/Publications/Publication-6075.aspx
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