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.
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.
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.