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Health needs of children in prison
  1. M Mather
  1. Correspondence to:
    Dr M Mather
    Bexley Primary Care Trust, 221 Erith Road, Bexleyheath, Kent DA7 6HZ, UK; mary.matherbexley.nhs.uk

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Commentary on the paper by Gould and Payne

To the international readers of Archives, the article in this issue by Gould and Payne1 will come as yet one more puzzling insight into the nature of the British attitude to children. Why does a nation with so many admirable qualities have such a punitive attitude to the most vulnerable members of society, our children?

Britain was the last state in Europe to ban corporal punishment in schools. The House of Commons did not vote for the abolition of state sanctioned physical punishment in the classroom until 1986, and it took a further 12 years for corporal punishment to be banned in independent schools. This ban still does not extend to schools in Northern Ireland. Ten states in Europe have already banned parental smacking, and true to our well established punitive tradition, the British could be the last to follow suite.

Countries which have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, have to submit regular reports to the Committee showing what they are doing to implement the treaty. The United Kingdom submitted its second report in 2002. Although there was praise on some fronts—more willingness to listen to children, more help for young people leaving care, and a commitment to end child poverty within 20 years—there was also plenty of criticism. The excessive and increasing numbers of children in custody for lesser offences and for longer periods of time was highlighted as was the low age of criminal responsibility. This is 8 in Scotland, 10 in England, and 13 in most other European states. There was also criticism of the conditions in which children are held in young offenders institutes where there is frequently a high level of violence, bullying, self harm, and suicide. The report expressed worries that the detention of the children of asylum seekers was not compatible with the Human Rights Convention for children. Most of these criticism were however lost in the “smacking” furore which followed the committee’s most controversial recommendation that the government should repeal the 142 year old law giving parents the right to use “reasonable chastisement” in disciplining their children.2

Until the Howard League Penal Reform won a judicial review against the Home Office in November 2002, children in prison were not even covered by the provision of the Children Act 1989. Children could therefore be treated in prison in ways that would have triggered child protection investigations if they had occurred outside the penal system.

The recent Children’s Green Paper Every child matters3 pledges a commitment by government to secure and protect the welfare of every child in England. Child protection is given a high profile and made a high priority for all agencies. Despite this the Home Office still proposes that the only factor to be considered when a court passes sentence on a child is stopping them re-offending. The welfare of a child does not appear to be a consideration.4

Gould and Payne rightly highlight the lack of systematic information about the health of this vulnerable group of children as an appropriate matter of concern to paediatricians and an area where more research and information is needed.

Children who get into trouble with the law and end up in prison are often the same group who suffer abuse, school exclusion, family disruption, and mental health problems. Many have been brought up in care and have special educational needs. They are the nation’s most distressed and vulnerable children. There must be a fundamental change in the way society sees these troubled children.

They have complex and challenging needs. Their health, education, and welfare is sorely neglected. Prison is no place for them. They need looking after, educating, and protecting—not locking up.

Commentary on the paper by Gould and Payne

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