Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Kids Who Kill and Our Prisons

Whenever a child commits murder – or some other heinous crime – there is the predictable media-led sensation. Child psychologists are rolled out to pen ‘expert’ opinions on why kids kill, educationalists give their views, politicians have their say and there is general hand-wringing and angst over where we have all gone wrong. Often the blame is shifted onto ‘modern’ culture, particularly over violent video games or the easy availability of knives or guns.

The horrific murder of teacher Anne Maguire in April by a 15-year old pupil armed with a kitchen knife is a truly nightmarish saga from any perspective. Every teacher deals with a certain number of troubled children during their career, but – particularly when dealing with disturbed teenagers – there is a degree of risk. Usually this is manageable, but very occasionally the troubled teen turns violent. 

Classroom: a safe environment?
Actual murder in the classroom is, mercifully, very rare indeed, but nonetheless it is a terrifying prospect. I’m sure that when the news broke about the brutal circumstances of Mrs Maguire’s killing, it sent a shudder down the spine of everyone working in education. It’s impossible to imagine what her family is going through, although in their media interviews they have behaved with dignity and restraint, despite their obvious distress.

Although children who kill are a tiny minority of those who populate our prison system, they pose a seemingly intractable problem. Handing down a life sentence with a substantial minimum tariff to a young person who is not considered legally competent to vote, to leave home, to drink alcohol or to even buy cigarettes might be considered something of an anomaly. 

With an adult murderer, the courts are dealing with a person who can be held fully accountable and legally responsible for his or her actions. At the age of 15, a child can’t buy a lottery ticket. Society – and our legal system – seems to demand that children who are deemed incapable of exercising minor decision-making capacities in their everyday lives, suddenly become fully responsible for themselves and their criminal actions. 

A time of innocence?
Since England and Wales sets the age of criminal responsibility, the ‘defence of infancy’, at just ten years old (in Scotland it’s 12), this is in many ways a deeply imbalanced approach. In many other countries, the age of criminal responsibility is set much higher – often at 14 (as used to be the case under English common law) – but in some cases as high as 16 or, in a few cases, 17 or even 18. Even so, few European countries would consider sentencing a child as an adult.

The boy who murdered Mrs Maguire was 15 at the time of his crime, so there is less ambiguity than there would have been had he been much younger. Even under the old common law he would have been deemed capable of being tried for murder. During the trial, it also became clear that this was far from being a spontaneous outburst of temper or momentary loss of control. In fact, the evidence indicated that the crime had been planned over a long period of time, although the motivation still seems unclear. He also pleaded guilty, but has expressed no remorse. All in all, a deeply troubling situation that seems to fly in the face of common notions about childhood being a time of innocence.

In fact, anyone who has dealt with troubled children in a family setting, or in a professional capacity, knows only too well how violent, calculating and manipulative some of these kids can be. Years ago I did a placement in a notorious secure unit for very dangerous children held in custody after committing serious offences. There were never less than three adults present at any time, both to maintain order, as well as to protect staff from false allegations of assault or abuse. 

Some of these children were so severely disturbed, damaged and dangerous that, at least privately, I wondered whether they would ever be considered manageable risks in the community. Years later, when I was in prison myself, I did wonder whether any of the lifers and long-termers I encountered wandering around the wings in Cat-B or Cat-C prisons were the same kids I’d met back in the 1980s now grown into completely institutionalised adult cons. 

YOI Aylesbury
The future for the boy who murdered Mrs Maguire is very bleak. At the age of 16, he has been given a mandatory life sentence with a minimum term of 20 years. This is substantially above the average adult minimum tariff of 12 years. However, the judge Mr Justice Coulson, cited his “total and chilling lack of remorse” and observed that he might never be released from prison. So what does this mean in practice?

Initially, he will begin his sentence in a specialist unit of a Young Offenders Institution (YOI). When he gets to the age of 18, he will face being transferred to a YOI that accommodates young men aged 18 to 21. And after that, he will enter the adult prison system, possibly for the rest of his life.

As I’ve written in a previous blog post Glen Parva: More ‘Scum’ than Lord of the Flies, I’m fortunate that I’ve never been banged up in a YOI myself. However, I have worked closely with many young men who have and their descriptions of what goes on inside these institutions is truly disturbing, as are the latest reports issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Bullying, violence and extortion (known as ‘taxing’) are rife and in many cases the young men have to fight to keep what few possessions they have, including food and clothing. Those who refuse to fight back, or can’t defend themselves, face a daily hell of exploitation and victimisation. 

If anyone imagines that the teenager who murdered Mrs Maguire is in for an easy ride, they should think again. His path through our prison system will probably be much harder – and more dangerous – than for someone who had committed this heinous offence as an adult, particularly once he reaches the age of 18 and is transferred into a mainstream YOI, probably Swinfen Hall in Staffordshire or Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire.

Scene from the film Scum (1977)
Personally, I have yet to meet any young man who has ‘graduated’ from a YOI to an adult prison who has taken anything positive from the experience, particularly in terms of rehabilitation. I’ve seen them arrive on adult wings angry, embittered and programmed to fight anyone for anything. 

Most are well on the way to being institutionalised for life (even if they aren’t serving life sentences) and many are unable to build meaningful personal relationships. In some cases, their levels of sexual frustration and violent fantasies are truly terrifying. Think Roy Minton’s cult borstal film Scum and you are getting nowhere near what goes on inside the heads of some of these young cons. They are – literally – ticking timebombs waiting to go off, causing more mayhem and misery, and perhaps even murder, in their wake.

Of course, a fair number were very dangerous to start with. Some have endured short lives of horrific abuse – physical, emotional, sexual – within local authority institutions or dysfunctional families. Others, however, come from seemingly well-balanced homes with loving parents, as the killer of Mrs Maguire appears to have. Why he turned from being a troubled teenager into a calculating killer is something that may take years to unravel, or it may never become clear, particularly if his apparent lack of remorse undermines any therapeutic work that may be attempted while he is held in a specialist YOI unit.

A single cell
However, even if progress is made during the first two years of his sentence, I’d be willing to bet cash money that all of that will be undone with a vengeance once he reaches the mainstream YOI units for young adults. Unless there are major changes to the way these crisis-ridden institutions are run in the near future, then he’ll have to learn to fight to survive. 

By the time he reaches an adult nick, any pretence of rehabilitation will be gone. He’ll be an adult lifer and probably full of hatred, suspicion and bitterness. With our prisons awash with drugs of all kinds, he may well have developed a serious habit by the time he reaches adulthood. Fights with other youths and adult cons during his sentence will also count against him in his record. That’s why he may never be able to convince the Parole Board to release him even 30 or 40 years on.

There is another complication in this case. Mr Justice Coulson’s decision to ‘name and shame’ this child by lifting his anonymity, granted until the age of 18 under section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act (1933), was a deeply foolish move, which I understand was opposed by the authorities who are now responsible for his care and education. The application was made by various media organisations, including – shamefully – The Guardian, a newspaper that usually takes a much more responsible line when it comes to justice issues. The fact that social media, and The Sun, had already circulated his name, is no excuse for this decision by a judge who seems far more interested in dancing to the media’s tune.

By releasing this youth’s name and photograph to the media, Mr Justice Coulson has effectively declared it to be ‘open season’ on him and his family. It has guaranteed his notoriety and made him vulnerable to attacks and assaults inside our prisons. One only has to recall the impact that a similarly misguided decision had on the two young children who murdered little Jamie Bulger in 1993. This made any attempt to manage their rehabilitation and resettlement much more difficult, as well as ultimately costing the taxpayer an inordinate amount of money to give them new identities once they had been released as adults.

YOI corridor
In fact, in this case the boy’s defence barrister, Richard Wright QC, argued that lifting his anonymity at this stage would be “wholly contrary” to the child’s welfare. Moreover, the adverse publicity “would impede his management and treatment” while in custody, where he is already on 24-hour constant suicide watch. Sadly, in his infinite wisdom, Mr Justice Coulson took a contrary view and we’ll no doubt endure a never-ending media circus with bent screws and other cons selling tittle-tattle to the tabloids over the coming decades.

I honestly don’t pretend to know whether this lad can ever really be rehabilitated. Are we the same people now as we were when we were 15 or 16? Of course not. Age often brings experience and maturity. 

However, what I am pretty certain about is that whatever good work and progress could have been made during the next two years in the special unit will now be much more difficult owing to the decision to ‘name and shame’ him in the media. Moreover, if he follows the well-worn path from YOI to adult prison in the footsteps of the dozens of other young lads I’ve met coming in from Swinfen Hall, Aylesbury or Glen Parva, then his chances of meaningful rehabilitation will be somewhere between slim and none. Sorry to be so negative, but at least I’m being honest about a prison system that seems to thrive on consistent failure.  


  1. My father's friend worked on the Bulger case.

    1. Thanks for your comment. That was a truly horrific case - every parent's worse nightmare.

      However, in my view the decision to name the boys responsible did nothing to further either their rehabilitation or public protection. Some kids who commit horrendous crimes, particularly when they aren't even in their teens, do go on to lead relatively normal lives, for example Mary Bell, the 11-year old girl convicted of the manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility, of two little boys in 1968. She was released in 1980 at the age of 23 and is now reported to be a mother and grandmother.

      Sometimes these decisions to 'name and shame' have incalculable impacts on other family members who are totally innocent of any crime. Having to relocate them for their own safety and providing them with new identities can also cost the taxpayer dearly. Sometimes I do despair of the idiocy of some members of our judiciary who prefer to exercise power without any sense of responsibility or common sense.

  2. Such an awful story for so many people. Most of all the family of the victim but who can imagine what this young man's parents and wider family are going through.

    I agree with you that he shouldn't have been named but think its worse that a clear close up picture of his face has been published so widely. His name probably would have got out, and that could have been changed, but his face he is stuck with.

    I really hope there will be a serious investigation of whatever medication he was given, not saying that caused him to do what he did, but he does appear to have changed recently. There might be a medication that affects one person in a million and he might be that one. I threw away some medication I was prescribed once, for joint pain, because one of the possible side effects was listed as 'suicidal thoughts'. For joint pain? No thanks. Maybe he was always going to do this or maybe his crimes might have been less awful.

    There is one positive thing about this case which is that he either didn't want, or couldn't get, a gun or automatic rifle.

    Like you say his future looks very bleak so can only hope he meets some compassion along the way.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Sandra. I agree that this is a horrendous case. It also fuels so many of our worst fears about violent kids.

      The issue of this boy's medical history is another complication, not least because it has been raised in court. For that reason alone, Mr Justice Coulson might have exercised better judicial judgement when it came to the media's application to have the anonymity order lifted.

      I know that it can be hard to feel much compassion for dangerous people who have committed terrible crimes. Probably before I went to prison I wasn't very compassionate either. However, having spent a few years with some of these men, seeing them in deep distress and despair, sitting in cells with those who sobbed while disclosing details of their horrendous and abusive childhoods, I came to realise first-hand that they were human beings who felt pain, sadness and regret like the rest of us.

      That's one of the reasons that I feel I actually benefitted from my time inside. Speaking for myself, I think I have become more understanding and compassionate, as well as being more willing to listen to others.

  3. what's the point, ever, of this name and shame apart from the newspapers love it?

    he's a child and should've been tried as a child - else what's the point of these rules and laws if they ignore them?

    just seen this discussed on TV. it was awful. they were saying how he'd get help and rehabilitation in prison. they have no idea and this is being watched by thousands.

    i don't trust anything i read in the press any more. i don't trust any of the reporting to be accurate about the case, even the BBC. we don't really know what went on.

    i know in high school i had a few teachers who were evil to me (not at all saying this is the case here, she could've been lovely for all i know). i'd have liked to have done something to them, but i've never done anything violent against anyone in my life, it just isn't in my nature. no one deserves to die like that, no matter what they say, i hope she rests in peace.

    he said this apparently- "I wanted to get caught. That's why I did it in school. I wanted to be in jail."

    which seems a bit unusual to me?

    and this: It's kill or be killed. I did not have a choice. It was kill her or suicide."


    1. Thanks for your comments, Laura. I only wish that I believed that this boy would receive help in prison. As I mentioned in the post above, his real problem will start in a mainstream YOI. How anyone reading the latest HMI reports on YOIs can really believe that this kid will get through his time there and be a better person at the end of it is beyond me.

      I could understand - and expect - tabloids like the Daily Mail and The Sun to stir up a feeding frenzy over 'naming and shaming'. It's so much more disappointing that The Guardian, and even The Telegraph - which has recently started to approach the crisis in the criminal justice system with more thoughtful balance - should have joined in. I do have respect for The Guardian editor, Alan Rushbridger, but this is one issue on which he should feel deeply ashamed of himself. He has let himself, his newspaper and his readership down.

      I doubt that we'll ever learn the full story about this very disturbed teenager. Frankly, I'm not sure we really should be hearing all about his medical history or his mental health problems. He clearly needs professional treatment and care, but the media circus that will now go on for years really helps no-one, especially the grieving family of Mrs Maguire. They deserve much better.

  4. Ive received a few death threats and I know a few people hate my guts. It's just empty talk until it happens, hopefully nothing will come of it.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Fortunately, most people who make threats to kill are all hot air. It's a very silly way of letting off some steam when they have a particular bee in their bonnets.

      Occasionally, it can lead to actual incidents, but so rarely. Obviously it pays to take some precautions for personal protection, but in the end you need to assess your own safety and, if in doubt, report any adverse incidents to the local police. I hope you get through this.

  5. A very informative post; I agree with the arguments made, especially about naming the boy and the Guardian's part in that.

    What about his diabetes, though? I'm surprised that more was not made of it in mitigation argument, as it can badly compromise your thinking and emotions. Also, if he is type one diabetic, (which I suspect he is,) he'll need many daily insulin injections and blood tests - the use of needles. He'll also always be in danger of going low or high in blood sugar - both of which can make you unconscious and put you in a coma quite fast. So I would think that'll affect how he is treated and where he stays.

    Thanks for the informed and experienced post.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Tim. I'm glad to read that you found the post interesting.

      I don't know enough about this boy's specific case to add anything to your very relevant contribution, but it does sound as if this diagnosis could have been one contributory factor in changing his behaviour. It certainly prevented him following his ambition of joining the armed services, at least according to media reports of the evidence given during the trial.

      Unfortunately, the management of diabetes in prisons is not always great. I've known a number of people with the condition, both younger and older, and while some provision can be made in respect of appropriate types of foods, the system can break down at times. I know one older man with type 2 diabetes who slipped into a coma in his cell as a result of his medication not having been ordered in time by a prison healthcare department. In his case, he was saved by the timely intervention of wing staff, but other, more negative, outcomes have not been unknown in prisons.

  6. Interesting post, very informative. However do you not think there should be a period of punishment prior to rehabilitation?

    Also, the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland is 8.

    1. Thanks for your comments and question. The punishment element of any prison sentence is supposed to be the deprivation of liberty, so that extends across the whole of any custodial sentence. However, one of the declared purposes of imprisonment in the UK - at least in theory - is to seek to rehabilitate the offender and this, in my view, needs to be the focus of any work undertaken inside prison.

      The current problem is that there have been successive rounds of budget cuts, resulting in staff shortages and inadequate funding for proper rehabilitation work. Simply locking prisoners in a cell for 23 hours a day achieves nothing beyond providing very expensive human warehousing. It certainly offers nothing to encourage or support rehabilitation.

      With young offenders I believe that the primary focus needs to be on improving mental health, as well as providing appropriate education and vocational training. Of course, not all education needs to be purely academic.

      I've checked the issue of the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland and it seems that in 2009 the age was raised to 12 for prosecutions in court, although the actual age of criminal responsibility remains at 8 - something of an anomaly. Thanks for pointing that out. I gather that for children between the ages of 8 and 12 referrals are made to the Children's Reporter and the matter can be dealt with by interventions by the police and social workers.

  7. There is an show about Broadmoor on ITV this Wednesday at 9pm.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I'll try and catch it later.

  8. Ashworth and Rampton high security psychiatric hospitals should be filmed too. At least these places were not tarnished by Saville's grubby paws!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I am all in favour of more public understanding of what goes on inside both our prisons and our secure hospitals. There is so much conjecture based on a lack of accurate information. On the other hand, these documentaries do need to be produced responsibly, rather than milking the 'shock, horror!' angle.

    2. Take a look at this:

  9. i was watching this documentary last night it's a german YO prison. what struck me is that even though the place is very modern and clean and all, they still struggle with rehabilitation. one of the boys they follow is there to receive some kind of therapy but 9 weeks into his stay, it doesn't materialise at all. the therapist responsible for the prison basically declares a lot of the offenders incurable. i can see his point, he is basically saying, well, these guys have already seen a number of social workers and psychologists and they didn't impress them, so how are we supposed to fix this? but it's a bit... well, professionally bankrupt.

    there are quite a lot of skinhead / neonazi types about as well. i wonder if this is the same in the UK?

    the prison seems to operate on descending levels of deprivation. there is the segregation wing and then the austere cells if you continue to misbehave, then the practically empty cells where you can also be shackled to the floor.

    apparently with teenagers who misbehave continuously they keep them there for so long. it's interesting, because i guess they exist in a limbo of not being quite right for a mental hospital but also not for the prison.


    1. Thanks for your comments and the link, Martina. I did view the German documentary (although my German is very rusty, but I think I caught the main points). To be fair, some of our UK prisons are clean and new, even if under-staffed and poorly resourced.

      Our prisons here have a fair number of 'skinheads', but it's less of an ideology - more a prison fashion statement. There are some extremists, but very few real neo-Nazis. I did meet a few English Defence League (EDL) types inside, but their political stances are often very incoherent.

      We also have various levels of privileges, ranging from Enhanced down to Basic, with confinement in the Block (segregation unit) as the main punishment for serious misbehaviour. We also have strip cells where the prisoner is kept naked except for a blue blanket (mainly in cases of self-harm) and sometimes an inmate will get put into restraints to prevent them self-harming, but it's not supposed to be used as a punishment.

      We use indeterminate sentences too - life etc - where future release will depend on convincing the Parole Board that the person's risk can be safely managed in the community. They are then on life licence and can be recalled to prison if they reoffend or even if they start behaving in an erratic way that might raise their risk to the public.

  10. the channel 5 documentaries on holloway were horrendous. i thought we'd see what life was like "inside holloway" (at the moment) and see some interviews with inmates and staff.
    instead we just saw a load of shit about high profile cases and they purposely did it to be shocking (the picture of the baby's outfit will haunt me)

    i wonder if one day things will change so people are on house arrest at home for their sentence with some sort of new technology. maybe special flats built for it.

  11. More than 200 Prison keys lost across Britain:

  12. hey don't know if you've seen this.

    1. Thanks for the link. A very interesting article.

  13. Financial help with academic books:

  14. my son commited a crime aged 16/17 but was not sentenced until 18.The press named him.I think this was wrong as he was a child at the time of offence.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Personally, I would agree, particularly if the main focus should be on rehabilitation of children who offend. However we also seem to have a section of the judiciary who like kid's names to be published as a 'deterrent' and we've seen this with the two 10-year olds who killed James Bulger as well as the more recent case of the 15-year old who murdered his teacher.

      There was recently a TV documentary about ASBOs and one of the lads interviewed was named as a young kid when he was sentenced. I found it interesting to hear his own account of how being named in the media at a young age wrecked his life and has made it almost impossible for him to settle down and get work. His 'reputation' in his home area has had a devastating impact on him and his family. Needless to say, he is still involved in criminal activities, so the deterrent value seems to have been nil.