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Why we should abolish imprisonment for children and young people

Updated Monday 15th April 2019

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

The experiences of children and young people in prison has failed to create the kind of scandal which might be expected in a modern, progressive and civilised society. Children are some of the most vulnerable members of our society, yet there seems to be both public and political acceptance of their incarceration, despite mounting evidence of its terribly harmful effects. Although the number of children in prison has fallen enormously since 2007, there were 861 children in custody in England and Wales in 2018, 43 children were aged 14 or younger.

We also need to situate this also within the context of social backgrounds of the children we imprison.


Mini Documentary:

Why we should abolish imprisonment for children

Dr David Scott, Carolyne Willow, Janet Cunliffe, Liz Hardy:

One in four children in prison have been in care and one in five children in custody are disabled children in prison can often spend up to 22 hours a day in their cells.

People don't realize that in this country we have children in proper prisons they're not pretend prisons, they're not you know a childlike version of a prison they are proper prisons so you've got the children hungry children not being able to have physical exercise have the sunlight on their face.

Many children in prison have substance use problems have learning difficulties have either experienced or witnessed physical and sexual abuse.

Prisons act like prisons and children suffer greatly in prisons because that's what prisons are meant to do.

From 2006 to 2016 a hundred and ninety-seven child life sentences were handed down the average age of the person at the time of sentencing was 16 years old.

Jordan was actually considered registered blind at the time so he wouldn't have been able to see the victim or what was happening and his evidence was that he had come to the scene afterwards, after the actual fatal blow had been delivered. He was very confused as to what had happened and what was being used against him as well. Because he hadn't taken part in the violence and he hadn't encouraged it and he certainly had no idea who... well, what had happened to the victim other than reaching the scene and hearing the voices of other people and them saying basically we need an ambulance.

When the verdict was delivered and obviously they said murder for three of them and obviously what comes with it with a sentence is a life sentence and I didn't know that we gave children life sentences back then I had no idea about it that someone at the age of 15 could be given life for murder when the core and the trial had clearly proved that they weren't the person that I'd murdered anyone. When he was given his life sentence which was 12 years minimum. Almost as long as they'd been alive which I thought was just something that must have been so horrendous for him at the time, because 12 years may not seem like a long time for us but for a 15 year old it's basically all of his life.

But life sentences have also been handed down to children as young as 13. In 2018 there were only four child life sentences of prisoners in countries outside of the UK in the European Union.

I think most people don't realize that we give children life sentences and they don't realize that life is actually 99 years so if you're convicted at 15 your freedom ever to do anything that a normal person would do has completely gone for the rest of your life. You may not spend the rest of your life in prison but you'll be monitored and watched for the rest of your life and there'll be certain things you can and can't do and that will go on and until the day you die and I didn't know about that I didn't know that we would actually put a child in prison for such a huge amount of time and that there wouldn't actually be anything in prison that would help them develop in any way.

Although the number of children in prison in the last decade have gone down. Children who are inside still come from vulnerable and impoverished backgrounds. Children in prison are also disproportionately from black and Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds was somewhere in the region of 40% of children behind bars from BAME backgrounds.

We all know that sending a child to prison and the child being completely on their own without people who loved them, know them, understand them, look out for them, is... you know it's up there with the worst things that can happen to a child.

They just looked at him and thought 'Oh he's six foot four and a half he can handle himself we'll put him on this wing, which they did, they never read any reports to say um, he got ADHD, it's conduct disorder and he didn't know how to manage his emotions.

If a child is trapped in this tiny room. They firstly they wouldn't have ended up in prison unless they really need adult help, Yeah? Children who end up repeatedly offending, and that's not the majority of children in prison, there is a question about whether the numbers we have in prison, you know, we couldn't actually help children in community settings but those that do need to be in secure settings, those are the children that need the most skilled, the best we as adults can give them.

This other youth worker come upstairs to me and said to me, 'has he ever self-harmed?' and I said 'Yes', 'Have you seen his face?' I said, he was that worried he got toenail clippers and he was cutting his face but he'd also got some marks on his arms where he'd self-harmed before, when things got on top on him, he self-harmed.

34 children have died in prison since 1990 which is the year the UK signed up to the UN Convention on rights the child that we would follow those international children's human rights standards. Widespread unlawful restraint has been revealed shocking levels of neglect and mistreatment. The system cannot reform itself.

You tell made a boy who couldn't hardly read and write, had wrote a two and a half page A4 letter to me. Plus ripped his bedding and hung himself and been there for about 10 minutes before somebody found him when he should have been on an ACCT document (Assessment Care in Custody and Teamwork) and checked every 15 minutes.

Young people also have less life experiences on which to rely to help them to deal with the problems associated with prison life, or indeed to manage the suicidal impulse when things are looking bleak and hopeless.

They didn't look after him. I didn't expect him to mollycoddle him and give his breakfast on a silver tray. I expected him the basics, the warmth, just to keep him safe and feed him. I didn't expect them to look after him like I would have looked after him but they didn't even do that. They didn't do it right. It's the children we want a public inquiry for but they'll not give it us. Because they're children. And people don't know what goes off in prisons, what they do to children in prison. How they're treated. They should be treated humanely, not like scum of the earth because some really don't deserve to be there. Really, there's other things they could do for them, a lot of other things. My son died while in the state care but nobody knows that because there's never been a public inquiry.

We need to think again about what we mean by child prison as a last resort and work towards ending the sanction of imprisonment for all children who break the law.

We need to listen to children we need to support and empower them we need to recognise their vulnerabilities we need to ensure that the voice of the child is heard and we need to find radical alternatives to deal with troubled and troublesome children in our society.

-End of mini-documentary-

More than four out of 10 (46% of children in prison) were from BAME backgrounds in 2018. This is a significant rise in BAME child prisoners from 2007 when it was 24%. As there are relatively small numbers of children in custody, a small increase or decrease in the numbers of BAME children in custody can make a significant change to the overall figure, but in recent times BAME children have accounted for between 40%-50% of all children in prison.

It is also important to highlight that significant numbers of children in custody have drug problems, learning difficulties, mental health problems and have witnessed or experienced physical or sexual violence.

In the documentary ‘Why we should abolish imprisonment for children and young people’ Dr David Scott talks with three leading campaigners in the UK against the imprisonment of children and young people. Carolyn Willow is a leading children rights campaigner and the director of Article 39 and has argued against imprisoning children as both a practitioner and lobbyist. Janet Cunliffe is the mother of Jordan Cunliffe, who received a life sentence at the age of 15 and is the founder of the campaign group JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association). Liz Hardy was the mother of Jake Hardy, who took his own life in HMP/YOI Hindley in January 2012 and is a leading campaigner against child prisons.

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). 

From 2006 - 2016, 197 child life sentences were handed down. The average age of the person at the time of sentencing is 16 years, but life sentences have been handed down in this period to children as young as 13

Of the 28 different countries in the European Union in 2018, life imprisonment for children had been abolished in 22. There are currently four children serving life imprisonment outside of the United Kingdom in the EU today, and these are all in the Republic of Ireland[i]. There were an additional two child life sentences in France prior to 2018, but this country has now abolished child life sentences and the life sentences of the two children was successfully appealed in at least one, if not both, of these cases.

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.

According to data from INQUEST 80 people under 21 took their own lives in child prisons between 2007-2018 (with two deaths of young people awaiting classification) and in total 312 young people under the age of 21 have died in penal custody between 1990-2018.

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:

  • Immediately abolish life imprisonment for children and look to house children who do serious wrongs in places of genuine care and safety;
  • 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’.


Disclaimer: Please note the views expressed in this article and the video are those of the author and contributors, not those of The Open University.



[i] The 2018 information on child life sentence is derived from conversations with Children Rights International Network (CRIN) and an answer to a question asked by a TD in the Irish Dail.  Thanks to James Mehigan for sharing this.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessary reflect those of The Open University.






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