The public face of young people in the prison service is the Hydebank Wood facility in far southern Belfast. This location houses ‘young male’ offenders (ages 17 to 21) as well as women of all ages that are in Northern Ireland’s penal system. In 2009/2010 there were an average of 178 young men incarcerated at Hydebank Wood at any given time, and of those 16 were juveniles. Today, there are 200 young men and 54 women in custody at that location.
The majority of offences committed by those in Hydebank Wood fall under three categories of criminal activity: violent attacks, property damage, and trafficking/possession of an illicit substance. 402 (roughly 60%) of the young men at Hydebank in 2009/2010 committed such an offence. ‘Other offences’ accounted for the remaining 271 young men that passed through this particular facility.
Legally, anyone age ten and above can be held criminally responsible for their actions, but in reality only those over the age of 15 would ever be held in the Hydebank Wood facility, either in remand or custody. Those under the age of 15 remanded or sentenced to custody would end up in the Juvenile Justice Centre, a system separate from NIPS. Thus, it is generally young people in their middle or late teenage years that actually make it into the prison system.
Though there is little recent data available, past research has shown that large numbers of young people in NIPS and the Juvenile Justice Centre come from cared-for backgrounds. Many have been in and out of care for years, and have histories of unstable home lives and health/mental health issues. It is also not uncommon for these young people to have had poor educations and bad experiences with school.
There are many issues that stem from having young people within NIPS. First, the premise itself is contested – should minors ever be put into custodial care? At what point are young people, and not society, wholly responsible for their own actions? Is the denial of liberty the best course of action? What are the human rights considerations?
Second, one must consider the outcomes of time served in custody versus time spent in a programme within the Juvenile Justice Centre, or some other diversionary scheme. In the United Kingdom as a whole, eight out of ten young people who spend time in custodial care will re-offend within two years of their release. In Northern Ireland particularly, 71% of youth who served custodial sentences in 2006 went on to re-offend. This number is high in its own right, but startling when compared to the re-offending rate of those who participated in the restorative-justice approach of youth conferencing: 38%.
What, then, do these numbers mean for the purpose and eventual consequences of placing young people in the prison system?