Britain has one of the highest rates of imprisonment of children in the western world, reported the Economist recently. “ Roughly 2.5 percent of all prisoners in England and Wales are under 18 … Britain locks up a greater proportion of its youth than even America, which leads the world in its imprisonment of adults. ” (i)
In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the numbers of young children (age 10-14) being imprisoned. Whereas in 1997, 130 people in this age group were jailed, by 2007 the numbers had swollen to more than 500. “ The most common reason for imprisonment among younger children is the breach of a milder sanction such as an antisocial-behaviour order (ASBO) or curfew. ASBOs are dished out to children for nuisance behaviour that would not ordinarily be jail-worthy, but can lead to custody if breached. ” (Ibid)
Once in prison, our youth face a regime based on punishment and coercion, isolation, bullying and violence at the hands of fellow prisoners and staff. Some never make it out alive. Incidents of self harm are high and children in prison are 18 times more likely to commit suicide than children outside. (ii)
Since 1990, 30 children have died in prison. (iii) If they survive the ordeal of incarceration, the statistics show that on release these children face the likelihood of a future based on repeat offending. According to studies completed by the Howard League for Penal Reform, 76 percent of children reoffend within one year of release. (iv)
You barely even need to scratch the surface before you hit the economic and political explanation for these scandalous figures; the social problems that capitalism, especially in time of crisis, will not and cannot solve.
The children found in our prisons are overwhelmingly from the most disadvantaged section of society: homes without work, families without secure or adequate accommodation, families facing lack of prospects, lack of food, and problems with drugs, alcohol and violence. None of these factors are conducive to a stable and secure childhood or the ability to participate in, and succeed, at school or in society at large.
As we have argued in previous articles, the introduction of the ASBO regime was all about placing a hasty and ineffective plaster over problems of antisocial behaviour in communities, in place of the much more expensive and private profit-less alternative of providing decent homes, employment, public services and education for all. (v)
According to the Howard League, “ Twenty-nine percent of boys and 44 percent of girls in prison custody have been in care. Two out of five girls and one in four boys in prison reported having suffered violence at home. One in three girls and one in 20 boys reported being sexually abused. Eighty-one percent of boys and 76 percent of girls in custody have been excluded from school. Around 15 percent of children in custody have statements of special educational needs, compared to 2.9 percent of the general population. Ninety percent have used illegal drugs. ” (vi)
None of these children deserve prison. All of them deserve a safe, secure and happy childhood and an equal start in life. All of us deserve to live in a society free from crime, fear and the criminalisation of children.
We should all demand these rights. However, none of them can be met under conditions of capitalism, in which decisions about the allocation of resources and the provision of public services are determined by the needs of private profit. As a result of this, the wealth of this country, which is more than adequate to finance the above, is criminally poured back into the wallets of a minority of individuals.
Socialism can solve these problems, and in Asia and Latin America, socialist countries are attempting to solve these problems in a humane and revolutionary way, to the great benefit of all humanity.
(i) ‘Growing up banged up’, The Economist , 20 August 2009
(ii) The Lancet , 15 September 2006, quoted in ‘The argument against the use of prison custody for children’, howardleague.org.uk
(iii) ‘Deaths of children in penal custody (England and Wales) 1990 to date’, inquest.org.uk
(iv) ‘Growing up, shut up’ howardleague.org.uk
(v) ‘Repression: further moves towards a police state’ Proletarian, August 2005, cpgb-ml.org/proletarian
(vi) ‘Growing up, shut up’, op cit