Cherishing the children equally
Lisnevin's brutal regime
Last week, outside Belfast Appeal Court, a West Belfast mother described her family's anguish following a decision to reduce the sentence of a teenage joyrider who killed her son. ``Patrick would have been 30 on 11 March and that would have been a big celebration, but we don't celebrate anymore. Patrick was my only son. Our whole lives are just completely shattered. We don't have lives any more,'' said Peggy Hanna.
Lisnevin is a brutal penal institution with a sectarian ethos in which young boys sleep on cell floors, can be held in solitary confinement and are often beaten and abused by untrained, uncaring, unaccountable and hostile staff
At the time of the killing, Patrick's killer, Gerard Gaskin, was 18 years of age. He is currently serving a sentence in a young offenders centre, Hydebank. Gaskin is also from West Belfast. He has a long history of antisocial and violent behaviour within his own community. When he's released, he will most likely offend again.
Lisnevin Justice Centre is a juvenile penal institution for boys near Millisle, County Down. It was built in the early 1970s as a category C prison. Razor wire encircles the perimeter. Children held in Lisnevin can be as young as 10. The average age of inmates is 15.
It must be asked if such bleak living quarters would be acceptable in many adult prisons.
The National Children's Bureau
The centre can hold up to 40 children, sentenced or remanded into custody. Children can be incarcerated in Lisnevin simply on the grounds that they are considered a danger to themselves. What brought them to Lisnevin may differ but once there all are written off.
According to a recent report by the Social Services Inspectorate Lisnevin's management said ``the primary purpose of the centre is to provide a service to the courts and keep young people in secure conditions where they can no longer cause disruption or engage in criminal activity in their neighbourhoods.''
The centre's ethos is one of punishment rather than rehabilitation. Like many adult prisons, Lisnevin has a punishment block or isolation unit. Within the `Scrabo' unit, there is no limit to the number of days a child can be held in solitary confinement. Many are kept in isolation for prolonged periods. No records are kept and no questions asked.
``At the start of the new millennium, Save the Children find it hard to believe that children as young as 10 can be held in solitary confinement for extended periods,'' said spokesperson Goretti Horgan.
The regime is always punitive and often brutal. A number of children have received compensation for injuries they've received following assaults by members of staff. The frequency and severity of such injuries and the circumstances within which the injuries were sustained, despite repeated calls from human rights groups, have never been revealed by the British government.
Situated in an overwhelmingly loyalist area, the majority of children detained in Lisnevin come from nationalist communities, mostly West Belfast. The relatively high percentage of nationalist children detained in institutions like Lisnevin does not directly relate to the rate of juvenile crime within nationalists areas. It simply reflects the fact that nationalist children fair less well within a criminal justice system which is notoriously sectarian.
In a kind of self fulfilling prophesy in 1997, the Northern Ireland Office described ``Mr Average'', the children most likely to offend, as Catholic boys from West Belfast. Indeed, it could be argued that Lisnevin was originally built with them in mind. Lisnevin was intended as a penal institution for young people charged or convicted of political offences arising out of the conflict but it was never really used as such.
Despite concerns expressed by many human rights groups, a clause which obliged courts to take into account a child's religious background was scrapped in 1996. While the number of children from nationalist areas detained by the courts has remained constant, the number of places in more open institutions within their own community has been drastically cut.
In the early 1990s, St Patrick's Training School in West Belfast could accommodate over 100 boys; by 1995 the number of places had been cut to 54, and today there are only 19. Despite being the only institution situated within the nationalist community and staffed by people who share a common cultural and religious background, St Pat's may well be closed.
Indeed, new legislation has removed the power of the court to determine where a child will carry out their term in custody. The responsibility has been assumed by the NIO, whose practice is to send all boys remanded or sentenced by the courts to Lisnevin in the first instance.
A panel of NIO appointees assesses those children deemed suitable for transfer to more `open' institutions such as Rathgael or St Patrick's. Membership of the panel and the criteria employed remain outside the public domain. Contrary to what might be expected, it is not always the most serious juvenile offenders who remain in Lisnevin. The children are not represented in the decision making process and there is no mechanism of appeal.
The staff in Lisnevin are drawn from a predominantly Protestant and often loyalist background. According to the Inspectorate's report, the use of unqualified temporary staff was routine. The report notes that managers ``spent a substantial amount of time... telephoning around to secure adequate cover for their next shift''.
Lisnevin has a history of sectarian bullying perpetuated by both inmates and staff. On occasions, sectarian tensions within the institution have escalated into violent confrontation and riots, most notably in 1994.
Commenting after the disturbances, the Six County-based Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) noted that it had received a number of complaints of assaults, intimidation and verbal abuse by staff. The NIO dismissed the CAJ's call for a public inquiry and described the staff as behaving appropriately.
As well as those detained by the courts, the RUC use Lisnevin as an arbitrary punishment for children by arresting them and taking them there to be held overnight. Earlier this year, a 12-year-old-child was detained in Lisnevin at the whim of the RUC.
Euphemistically called bedrooms by the Social Services Inspectorate, in fact children in Lisnevin sleep in cells. Until recently, most had no furniture other than a mattress on the floor. According to a recent report, many of the children were still `choosing' to sleep on the floor. They told the inspectors that they did this to enable them to lie next to hot water pipes, where it was warmer.
Conditions within the rest of the centre are no better. A health and safety report notes bathroom and toilet facilities can be ``at best described as functional''. The report details broken tiles, flaking paint and windows which will not open, resulting in major problems with heat, ventilation and humidity.
Despite the fact that there have been a number of recent fires, says the report, there is no evidence to suggest, furniture, textiles, mattresses and bedding meet the required fire proof standard. ``It must be asked,'' reads a study carried out on behalf of the National Children's Bureau, ``if such bleak living quarters would be acceptable in many adult prisons.''
If all this was not bad enough, children detained in Lisnevin are routinely subjected to searches - it is unclear if this includes strip searches. Instructions in a staff handbook say room searches are to be carried out on a nightly basis, unit searches weekly but not on the same time or day and boys are to be ``thoroughly searched at reception prior to joining their units'' and searched before leaving the visiting area, after each visit and after each court appearance. None of the staff have been trained in appropriate searching methods for children.
``Given the authoritarian nature of the regime and the frequent intrusions and lack of privacy,'' writes the CAJ, ``it is difficult to image that Lisnevin could be described as treating children ``in a manner consistent with the promotion of their sense of dignity and worth,'' as required by article 40 of the United Nations Children's Rights Commission, nor does it appear that the ``best interests of the child'' are the paramount consideration as required by article 3.''
At the beginning of this article, I presented three aspects underpinning the issue of the juvenile justice system for nationalist communities in the North. Roddy Doyle expresses the republican aspiration to cherish all of the children equally. Through his fictional Volunteer Henry Smart, he is not just acknowledging the children of Ireland's dispossessed but also the streetwise, lawless hustling strategies of childhood survival which underpins his main character's political development.
Then comes the hard reality of a son so brutally and carelessly killed by a teenage joyrider and the grief and loss of his family. A mother whose pain and tears have not been acknowledged by a criminal justice system which, by handing out an arbitrarily short sentence to the killer, appears to diminish the hurt inflicted, not only to the victim's family but also his community.
d finally we have Lisnevin. A brutal penal institution with a sectarian ethos in which young boys (most of which are not guilty of so serious a crime as Gerard Gaskin, but a few of whom no doubt are) sleep on cell floors, can be held in solitary confinement and are often beaten and abused by untrained, uncaring, unaccountable and hostile staff. An institution which doesn't even work as a deterrent, confirming rather than challenging the criminality of the children within its walls.
Irish republicans and northern nationalists have often found themselves at the sharp end of a British penal institution. Our POWs have fought long and hard to improve jail conditions and to maintain their status, not only as political prisoners but also as human beings with rights to dignity and fair treatment. Should we accept less for our children?
In West Belfast, I know of no one who holds any sympathy for Gerard Gaskin, nor for any other joyrider. Their anti social antics only add to the grief of a community already enduring the brutality of British occupation and its sectarian state. Even towards children guilty of much lesser crimes our feelings are, at best, ambiguous. The aspiration to cherish all the children of the nation equally is not one which will realised easily.