Children are regularly placed behind bars all throughout the world. More than a million are deprived of their freedom in this way. Their age and the conditions of their detention defer from one country to the other, but detention always has serious consequences that are harmful to the development of such children and their eventual future.
How is someone deprived of their freedom?
Deprivation of freedom occurs in forms of detention, imprisonment, or placing a person in a public or private establishment which they are not allowed to freely leave, because of a judicial, administrative, or other order.
Children can be deprived of their freedom for many reasons, depending on the country:
Delinquency: burglary, begging, vagrancy, etc.
Risk of delinquency
Crimes: assault, murder, etc.
For discriminatory reasons
Physical or mental handicaps
Accompanying imprisoned parents
Many other reasons
Most children deprived of their freedom are in preemptive detention and are between the ages of 14 and 18. The exact number of children deprived of their freedom is impossible to determine because of a lack of studies, although UNICEF estimates that more than one million children are affected. Depending on the country, the percentage of children among all detainees varies from 0.5 to 30%.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child forbids life imprisonment for children. However, in the United States, more than 2500 prisoners who received a life sentence without possibility of parole were minors when they committed their crime, some as young as 13 years old.
Different Places of Detention
Some institutions where children can be deprived of their freedom are the following:
Police custody centers
Prisons (including adult prisons)
Sealed temporary detention camps
Sealed special schools
Education or professional training establishments
Military camps or prisons
Sealed youth shelters
Conditions of Detention
Rules are not often followed.
Imprisonment or detention in youth shelters, whether temporary (while awaiting trial) or permanent (resulting from a sentence), should be for as short an amount of a time as possible, and used only as a last resort, when no other solutions are available. It must be regulated and registered by a competent authority and should both respect children’s rights and fulfill their specific needs, according to their age, sex, and physical and mental state.
It is essential that children are separated from adults, in order to protect them from harmful influences (“criminal contamination”) and risky situations. Studies show that children who are imprisoned with adults are five times more likely to be sexually harassed and twice as likely to be physically abused.
Children also have the right to health care, education, and any aid they require, including psychological, physical, and judicial. Leisure activities should also be at their disposal, and their freedom of religion should be respected as much as possible.
Restraining implements should be limited to the most extreme cases, and torture is strictly forbidden. An independent and competent authority should have the right to pay regular visits to detention sites in order to verify proper living conditions for children.
It is important that children not be cut off from the outside world, especially from visits from their relatives and friends. This limits any poor treatment and will help to reintegrate them back into society upon their release.
Unfortunately, most of these rules are not often followed. Children are regularly shut away in prisons whose living conditions do not meet international standards. Sometimes, they are imprisoned with adults; other times, for minor infractions or even without having committed any infraction at all. Hygienic conditions usually leave much to be desired, and there is often no access to health care or education.
Some disciplinary measures violate basic human rights, and detention authorities sometimes use torture against children. Other prisoners can also be a source of violence if there is poor surveillance by guards or if living conditions are bad, although such things are rarer among children. The violence can be physical (assault, rape, murder) or psychological (extortion, manipulation, threats).
“You are forced to work every morning. If you don’t, they beat you, dunk you in water, and lock you up alone in a room. If your friends or relatives can be bothered to come visit you, maybe you’ll eat. If not, you won’t.”– A 16 year-old former detained child from Congo.
Prison as Social Protection
In some countries, children can be taken into custody if they have no one else to care for them and if they require care and protection. Street children can also be arrested by police and detained in order to get them off the streets for a while.
The problem is that, in many countries, the justice system for minors and the childhood social services protection system only overlap at the level of “detention site.” A penitentiary establishment can, in fact, shelter children who were taken there only for their own protection.
Children Imprisoned with their Parents
When parents throughout the world are sent to prison, children suffer the consequences. Most of them still live in the outside world, but some young children are born or brought to prison with their mothers. Certain rare cases will send children to prison with their fathers.
The length and living conditions of their stay vary greatly from one country to another. For example, children can remain with their mother up to 6 years of age in Germany, but only up to 18 months in the United Kingdom. Sometimes, it is strictly forbidden. It’s difficult to say which situation is the best.
In some countries, the mother can have her sentence reduced if she has very young children (such as in Kyrgyzstan). In others, they lose all parental rights at their sentencing.
Any children living in prison pose problems. They are often neglected, and their needs and best interest are not taken into account. At any rate, these children, who have not committed any crime, should not be subject to the same restrictions as detainees.
It is important that these children have access to sufficient food, as well as leisure activities and education. They should be able to receive visitors and leave the prison from time to time in order to help them adapt to society, to which some will have had no exposure. Also, once the mother is released, she and her child should receive support, in order to avoid any future delinquency.
Consequences of Deprivation of Freedom
Generally speaking, depriving children of their freedom has harmful consequences to their lives, especially when living conditions of the detention site are poor.
Placing children in detention has negative effects on their physical, mental, and emotional development, because of being locked up and shut away from society. They do not have the necessary tools to develop their personality. Prison also deprives them of appropriate health care and education, and can cause negligence or physical and mental brutality, either caused or tolerated by their guards.
Many children suffer from anxiety, fear, suicidal thoughts, or destructive behavior. Many fall ill because of the poor hygienic, feeding, and living conditions, and others turn to drugs. Medical and psychological care is often unavailable or inappropriate.
Detained children are also victims of social discrimination, and often lose their civic, political, economic, social, or cultural rights. They are isolated from society.
Upon their release from prison, many children have a hard time finding their place within the community and in relation to authority figures, especially if they were imprisoned for a long time. They have fallen terribly behind on an educational and professional level. They find their relationships with their family and friends difficult to pick up again, because their time in prison is shameful to both the child and their family. Excluded from society, they will more easily fall back into delinquency.
According to Kabeya at the International Catholic Child Bureau (ICCB), some children stay in prison too long to reintegrate into the outside world. “They are like caged birds who have not learned to fly.”