In the eyes of the UN, Scotland stands guilty of cruelty. We must act.


Children in prison: part 2

by Kenneth Roy

Kelly Holland, who died in an adult prison at the age of 17, was no danger to anyone except herself.  The night she hanged herself in Cornton Vale prison, she had not been convicted of any crime; she was on remand after a minor incident in a street – and she was mentally ill.  On two grounds, her imprisonment breached the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It breached Article 37 which states that children – anyone under the age of 18 – should “not be treated cruelly.  They should not be put in prison with adults.”

It breached Article 40 which states that, if children are sent to prison at all, “it should only be for the most serious offences.”  These are not specified.  But we can assume that they do not include breach of the peace and resisting arrest – the offences with which Kelly had been charged.

The deaths of Kelly Holland, and of Arlene Elliot, also aged 17, a few days later in the same prison, should continue to haunt the conscience of Scotland as extreme examples of what can happen – and did happen – when we lock up deeply disturbed adolescents.  These events 16 years ago should have prompted a reform of the law.  They should have led to the abolition of imprisonment of young people under the age of 18 except for the most violent crimes.  They didn’t.

Scotland still fails to meet its obligations under the UN convention, and does so in spectacular fashion.  On 30 June 2009 – the most recent date for which I have been able to obtain figures – two girls and 44 boys aged 16, 13 girls and 146 boys aged 17, were being held in adult prisons.  To summarise: we were breaching the UN convention in no fewer than 205 cases.

Some of the boys – I understand about 50 – are now being held in Blair House, a separate wing of Polmont Young Offenders Institution recently opened to accommodate 16 and 17 year olds.  The Scottish Prison Service describes this as ‘a key step to improving compliance’ (with the UN convention).  It meets, in these comparatively few cases, our obligations under Article 37; whether it ensures compliance with Article 40 is much more doubtful.

Where are the others – the majority – being detained?  Perhaps it is time our politicians discovered this for themselves.  Or do they – and we – care so little for an international charter of human rights that we are quite comfortable about breaking it routinely day after day, year after year?

There is no doubt where the 15 girls – the latter-day Kelly Hollands – were being held on 30 June 2009.  They were in Cornton Vale, Scotland’s only prison for women.  In every one of these 15 cases we were in breach of Article 37; in the eyes of the United Nations, Scotland stands guilty of cruel treatment.

here is a woeful lack of bail hostels and electronic tagging for young people on remand – both of which would be creative alternatives to imprisonment.

After yesterday’s introductory piece in SR, Richard Simpson MSP got in touch with some helpful personal testimony.  In his professional life as a GP, he was a deputy medical officer at Cornton Vale for more than 20 years.  He writes: “My practice resigned finally after much argument a few weeks before the first of the suicides, in part because the medical support was threadbare and had failed to recognise that the drug problem, which was almost non-existent in the early 1980s, was becoming increasingly prevalent.”

One of the most disturbing facts to emerge from the inquiry into the deaths of Kelly and Arlene was the refusal of Cornton Vale to admit a senior consultant psychiatrist to see Arlene, who was exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia, at a critical stage.  He was turned away at the gate because his visit was inconvenient to the prison authorities.  Dr Simpson says he doubts whether, even now, the Mental Welfare Commission has any statutory right of access to prisoners with mental health problems.  If this is true – I will be writing to the commission to have it confirmed or denied – it shows how little has been learned from these avoidable deaths.

Richard Simpson rightly points to improvements.  A suicide prevention strategy was introduced in Scottish prisons which has succeeded in reducing the number of prisoners who take their own lives.  Such initiatives as the Time Out centre in Glasgow for short-term, non-violent offenders with a drug problem are hugely welcome.  But the Scottish Prison Service acknowledges that there is ‘a disproportionate number’ of young people in our prisons; and the number of under 18s being held in defiance of the UN convention has increased significantly since 1995, when Kelly and Arlene died.  There is a woeful lack of bail hostels and electronic tagging for young people on remand – both of which would be creative alternatives to imprisonment.

At the end of a Howard League event in Edinburgh on the theme ‘Why do we lock up so many young people?’ Lesley Riddoch asked the main speakers to propose how they would reform the system.  My own proposal was that we should honour our obligations under the UN convention by forbidding the imprisonment of 16 and 17 year olds except for the most violent crimes.  Any enlightened political party – of which the present ruling party is certainly one – should have this in its manifesto for the 2011 Holyrood election.  We owe the memory of Kelly Holland and Arlene Elliot nothing less.


Kenneth Roy’s proposal has been taken up by the Howard League Scotland, which is preparing a letter for circulation to MSPs and the media.  If you approve of its campaign to make Scotland compliant with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and end the imprisonment of 16 and 17 year olds except for the most serious crimes, you could do so now by visiting the Howard League Scotland website: and register your support.

SR acknowledges the co-operation of Kelly Holland’s family, who provided the photograph of her as a child which accompanies this article.


This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.