Scotland is flouting the UN convention on the rights of the child

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Children in prison: part 1

by Kenneth Roy

When the Howard League (for penal reform) held a meeting in Edinburgh on the imprisonment of young people, it was my lazy assumption that Scotland must be fulfilling its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  It never pays to have lazy assumptions; there is no ‘must be’ about it.  Scotland is actively flouting the convention.

I had been asked to give the opening speech on how it was pre-devolution, when I took a keener interest in this subject.  The audience under Lesley Riddoch’s chairmanship was extraordinarily diverse – prison governors, social workers, academics, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, as well as young people and community organisers from the deprived area of north Edinburgh (Pilton) in which we were meeting.  The children’s commissioner was there.  The justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, who had hoped to be present, was detained at a cabinet meeting.  His Labour shadow, Richard Baker, listened attentively and took many notes.

‘Why do we lock up so many young people?’ was the theme.  I began by asking anyone in the room who had ever heard of Kelly Holland or Arlene Elliot to raise their hand.  No hand went up.  It is true that 1995 is rather a long time ago: four years before the Scottish Parliament came into being, promising a new era of enlightened social reform.  Had they lived, both girls would be in their early thirties.  But, though they are long dead, it is important that we remember them – if only to give historical context to our continuing refusal to honour the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Kelly and Arlene were 17 years old – the last year of what the UN defines as childhood.  Both committed suicide within a few days of each other.


Should anyone have been surprised by her death?  Not at all.  For several years her behaviour had been causing concern.


Kelly left her parents’ house in Hamilton one summer evening in 1995.  Early the following morning, she was spotted by a police patrol.  She was shouting and wailing incoherently.  When the police approached, Kelly swore at them and told them to leave her alone.  They charged her with breach of the peace, resisting arrest, and possession of an offensive weapon – a fragment of broken glass.  She arrived at the police station at 1.19am and spent the rest of that night and the whole of the following day and night in police custody.  By the time she left for court, she had been alone in a cell with virtually no human contact for 32 hours.

She was remanded in custody.  By the time she arrived at Cornton Vale – Scotland’s prison for women – 40 hours had elapsed since the minor incident which had led to her arrest.  She was last seen in the prison kitchen fetching a cup of tea to take to her room.  She was laughing and joking.  Three hours later she was dead.

Should anyone have been surprised by her death?  Not at all.  For several years her behaviour had been causing concern.  From being a cheerful girl with an interest in foreign languages, doing well at school, she changed abruptly after the murder of a local student, Amanda Duffy.  Did she know something?  Had she witnessed or heard something?

For several months I researched the baffling case of Kelly Holland.  I was given access to many official papers, including a number of social inquiry reports.  They noted that Kelly was displaying physical signs of depression and expressing suicidal tendencies.  She did attempt suicide several times.  One report stated: “Kelly has been traumatised in some way and is troubled with a deep-rooted anxiety which she is unable to share.”

At one stage she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and transferred to an adolescent psychiatric unit.  She absconded and was found in Newcastle with a bottle of paracetemol.  She drifted through the courts on a variety of minor charges, mostly drunk and disorderly.  The procurator fiscal at Hamilton was so concerned by her mental condition that on one occasion he took a highly unusual decision for a man in his position: he refused to prosecute her.

Yet she died in prison.

Why was she there at all?


After 12 years of the Scottish Parliament, the justice system which consigned Kelly Holland and Arlene Elliot to Cornton Vale is essentially unchanged.


If the roots of Kelly Holland’s unhappiness remained a mystery until and beyond her death, the case of Arlene Elliot was more straightforward.  The talented young musician became addicted to drugs.  Her life was destroyed by heroin.  Arlene had been self-harming for several years.  Like Kelly, she was a fairly frequent visitor to Cornton Vale, always for petty offences such as shoplifting.  At a late stage, she was visited in prison by a psychiatrist, who observed that she had a history of auditory hallucinations – voices which instructed Arlene to pull out her hair.  Arlene always obeyed the voices.

“I found her to be very distressed,” the psychiatrist wrote.  “I concluded that she was suffering from a psychotic illness.”  She decided that Arlene was detainable under the Mental Health Act.  But she never received the treatment that might have saved her life.  On 26 June 1995, upset by Kelly Holland’s death three days earlier, she too hanged herself in Cornton Vale prison.

Why was she there at all?

Why was either of them there?

We have not heard for a while of 17-year-olds committing suicide in Cornton Vale prison.  For that we must be profoundly grateful.  But it would be wrong to imagine, as perhaps some of us had imagined, that this is a result of a benevolent change in penal policy and that we no longer imprison deeply disturbed adolescent girls.

After 12 years of the Scottish Parliament, the justice system which consigned Kelly Holland and Arlene Elliot to Cornton Vale is essentially unchanged: on two separate counts we continue to infringe the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Tomorrow I will show how.

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