The Custodial Detention of Children and the Youth Justice Review

Rights NI is delighted to welcome this guest post by Drs Una Convery and Linda Moore, lecturers in Criminology at the University of Ulster. They were the co-authors of Still in Our Care: Protecting Children’s Rights in Custody in Northern Ireland published by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission in 2006. Their research interests also include women in the criminal justice system and the rights of children of imprisoned parents. They can be reached at and

It is over 15 years since we first met each other, through our shared concerns about the treatment of children in custody in Northern Ireland, and in particular about the detention of children within adult jails.

At the time, one of us (Una) was researching her PhD and had the sad experience of interviewing 14 year old Annie Kelly, imprisoned in the high security, mainly male, environment of Maghaberry prison. Annie had a history of self-harm and mental health difficulties. In Maghaberry, she was routinely strip-searched, forcibly restrained and locked down in isolation for extended periods. According to the official narrative, such treatment was for her own protection. Aged 19, Annie was found hanging in a strip cell in September 2002.  At the inquest in 2004, the jury found that ‘defects in the prison system’ had contributed to Annie’s death.

It is difficult to believe therefore, that in 2013, we still need to make the argument that children under the age of 18 should not be imprisoned with adults. Yet, in a briefing at Stormont yesterday, we raised concerns about the Department of Justice’s plans to continue to allow for the imprisonment of boys under 18 years, on an ‘exceptional’ basis, in Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre.

Hydebank Wood accommodates young men up to the age of 24 years and the poor conditions there have been well documented in a series of inspection and independent monitoring reports. The Youth Justice Review Team and the Prison Review Team, as well as the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, have each recommended that all under 18s in custody in Northern Ireland be held in Woodlands, and not in prison service custody.

Locally based children’s rights organisations continue to campaign on the issue. Minister for Justice David Ford announced on the 28th June 2012 that the detention of under-18s in Hydebank Wood will cease in all but the most exceptional circumstances from 1 November 2012 (DoJ 2012) and guidance is currently being drawn up for the administration of such a policy.

The caveat of exceptionality is contrary to Article 37c of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which requires that children should not be detained along with adults and to which the UK withdrew its reservation in 2008.

Fifteen years ago we were told that Annie Kelly was just such an ‘exceptional’ case.  There have been others in a similar situation since. The argument seems to have been won in relation to girls, but unfortunately although the DOJ claims to have accepted the Youth Justice Review team’s recommendation for the removal of under-18s from the  Young Offenders Centre, in reality it is failing to meet this pledge.