The kids are not alright

The construction of a dedicated children's detention centre at Oberstown has been put on hold. While plans for the centre have not been entirely shelved, there is, worryingly, no clear indication of a timeframe for its completion. By Paul Walsh.

In December 2011, while responding to Dáil questions, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence Alan Shatter admitted that plans to build a new detention centre for teenage boys at Oberstown, Lusk, Co. Dublin were to be put on hold. Shatter said that it was “not unfortunately possible to include the Oberstown project in the recent list of projects covered by the Government capital investment framework”. A spokeswoman for Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald – whose office has assumed responsibility for the project – told the Irish Times in January that the original projected cost of €90m for the centre was “inflated given all that has happened”. Design work and tender documentation are to be completed in 2012, with a new projected cost of €65m.

This delay is despite a report published in February 2011 by the Ombudsman for Childrens Office (OCO) which was highly critical of the current practice of housing young offenders in St Patrick’s Institution. It noted that “The very fact that young people under 18 are being held in prison at all in Ireland is a serious contravention of international human rights standards.”

Presently, youths between 16 and 18 are imprisoned in St Patrick’s, but the opening of the Oberstown facility was to bring this practice to an end. The OCO report revealed that young people under 18 are not detained separately from young adults in St Patrick’s; they are forced to endure screened visits; and measures to assist young people in preparing for release and reintegration into their communities are inadequate. The decision to delay this project has sparked outrage and opposition, as advocates for prisoners’ and children’s rights feel budgetary concerns have once again overridden the human rights of our young people.

Promises broken

In March 2008, former Minister for Children Brendan Smith announced that a new detention centre for teenagers and children was to be built at Oberstown in Lusk, Co. Dublin. Phase One, which was to accommodate 16 and 17-year-old children, was to be completed by 2012. It was anticipated the 80 children would be accommodated in the first phase of the building. A decision was then to be made on Phase Two, which would have increased its capacity for children and teenagers to 167. €145m was set aside for the project in the National Development Plan, though at that point the development had not been costed. This decision was made to comply with the provisions of The Children Act 2001, which stated that all children under 18 must be detained in Children’s Detention Schools.

11 years after the Children Act was brought into law, the only work that has taken place on the Oberstown site is the erection of some gates and an adjoining wall. Behind the gates lies an empty field. According to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the cost of erecting the gates to the empty field was “€68,000 including VAT."

Since Shatter’s Dáil response the Government has sought to reassure those concerned with children’s rights that this project is not off the agenda. Despite assurances that the design and tendering process will take place in 2012, there is still no clear indication of a timeframe for a completion of the Oberstown detention centre. How long can the present situation continue, and are there any alternatives in the interim?

St. Patrick’s forgotten children

St. Patrick’s Institution has been repeatedly and trenchantly criticised by prisoners, employees and in numerous reports concerning the prison. The report by the Children’s Ombudsman was revealing as it gave children detained there a chance to describe prison conditions in their own words. In the report, young prisoners reported that they were not held separately from adult prisoners, that drugs are readily available in the prison and that access to education, training, sporting facilities and even family visits are sometimes restricted.  The prisoners also complained of the poor state of their cells, which they feel do not provide them with adequate privacy or a reasonable level of comfort. Said one: “You’d think we’d get a clean bed sheet when we go round ... to change ... our bedclothes ... I’ve half a bed sheet up there now that covers half of my mattress because it’s ripped ... And the dirt of the pillows and blankets.”

In 2006, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) published standards which covered juveniles deprived of their liberty. In relation to their accommodation it said that:

“A well-designed juvenile detention centre will provide positive and personalised conditions of detention for young persons deprived of their liberty. In addition to being of an adequate size, well lit and ventilated, juveniles’ sleeping and living areas should be properly furnished, well-decorated and have appropriate visual stimuli.”

These are not the conditions that young prisoners described in their interactions with the OCO. They spoke of cold cells with poor ventilation, and uncomfortable beds with dirty bed linen in a poor state of repair. Although the prisoners welcomed the fact that they had their own in-cell toilets, this was also not without its problems. There is a hatch door in their cell which can be opened by prison officers at any time, including when prisoners are using the toilet. The lack of privacy, and the condition of the cells, has a damaging psychological effect on the prisoners. One told the OCO: “We’re going off our head in the cells.”

It is hardly surprising that St.Patrick’s Institute is in such poor repair given that it is a Victorian era prison that dates back to the 1850s.

The Oberstown proposal

This Oberstown site already has three detention schools located there - Oberstown Boy’s School, Oberstown Girl’s School and Trinity House School.

The new facility was designed with high ceilings, wide corridors and a lot of light, to reduce the feel of a prison and the aim of making the youths feel less criminalised. The plans included conferencing facilities, music rooms, library facilities and a faith centre to accommodate a diverse multi-faith group. Medical and dental facilities were to be included on-site, along with accommodation for families to stay overnight if they had far to travel for a visit.

The Irish Penal Reform Trust (IPRT), in response to the Government’s recent announcement, wants commitments previously made adhered to. According to IPRT Chief Executive, Liam Herrick: “They [the Government] need appropriate facilities for 16 and 17 year-olds, on the assumption that we will be detaining some 16 and 17 year olds. The Government made it clear that the best solution was to build something age specific in Oberstown. We accept that, so we need them to follow through on that commitment.”

Interim solutions

Given the poor conditions that children are presently detained in, and with the Oberstown project being delayed for the foreseeable future, what steps can be taken to protect the youths that enter the Irish Justice System over the next few years? The Irish Youth Justice Service’s National Youth Justice Strategy for 2008 to 2010 states that in line with the criminal justice provisions of the Children Act 2001, detention should be “a last resort”. The Strategy also stresses the importance of early intervention to stop children coming into conflict with the law, and suggests this can be achieved by “meeting the welfare and educational needs of children adequately”.

The IPRT have also proposed steps that can be taken to deal with youths in the Irish justice system while uncertainty hangs over the capital budget needed to complete the Oberstown project. Liam Herrick identifies a “couple of areas” that could reduce the number of young people in detention. “The first area is the area of remand,” he says. “We have a very high proportion of the children in detention schools and the boys in St. Pat’s who are on remand. They are people that haven’t been found guilty of any offences and we also know that a large proportion of them will not be sentenced to a custodial sentence if they do get tried. There was a report to the Minister of Children in 2008 to that effect, which made recommendations in relation to supervising children on remand, which wouldn’t require them going into detention. If that was implemented and you significantly reduced the number of children in detention on remand, then you would have additional capacity in the child detention system as it is currently constituted.”

According to Herrick, the Government should be able to find the resources to solve this problem, given the small numbers involved. “We believe it should be possible to find a solution, as the number of children in detention is relatively small, but they are a very important and a very vulnerable group.”

He also points out the consequences of not dealing fairly with this group for society in general: “Even if there are only a small number of children in St. Pat’s and detention schools, these are people in serious danger of getting involved in more serious crime in later life and also in danger of developing serious mental health, drug and alcohol problems. So, if we don’t have proper solutions for them now, it is going to cause big problems for society in the future.”

Mr. Herrick’s point is borne out in the statistics. The Irish Prison Service’s Annual Report for 2010 shows that the number of 16 and 17 years old in prison on 30 November 2010 was 23.

The Government has limited resources to allocate around departments, but this problem concerning vulnerable children does not seem to be a priority. The State has obligations to the children of this State, obligations which it has not lived up to previously. We have seen the proof of this in the scandal of clerical sex abuse, missing children in HSE care and the long-delayed Children’s Rights Referendum. How the Government respond to this urgent problem will be a test of their true commitment to children’s rights. According to Herrick, Frances Fitzgerald needs to move quickly to demonstrate how seriously they take this issue and show that this announcement is a delay rather than death knell for the long promised juvenile detention centre. “We accept what the Minister for Children is saying but we need to see the details.”


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