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Opinion & Analysis

A child’s Christmas in Windmill Hill prison

A case in the juvenile court recently put a spotlight on the challenges facing this community in dealing with persistent young offenders, many of them with troubled backgrounds.

The juvenile in question is no stranger to the criminal justice system. Despite his very young age, he has already amassed a history of repeat offending and has served several stretches in jail. That’s where he is now, doing time alone in a wing in the adult prison on Windmill Hill, Gibraltar’s only secure facility.

Earlier this month he was sentenced to five months in prison for using a pen knife to intimidate his two carers and ‘imprison’ them in a Care Agency flat after they found drugs in his room and reported it to the police.

This was a serious case. The boy, a child, used a knife to intimidate two adults, forcing them to sit in the living room area of the flat and refusing to let them leave. He cut the telephone line so they could not make calls. He sliced a booklet into small pieces and stabbed the couch he was sitting on, actions clearly aimed to frighten. He cut pieces from a ball of string and tried to tie the hands of one of the carers. The ugly incident only came to an end when one of the carers managed to flee from the flat and raise the alarm.

The boy was arrested, charged and brought to court, where he pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and possession of a small amount of cannabis. He will spend Christmas behind bars. Rightly so, many would say.

But this is a child. Let us not get into the details of his upbringing, but suffice it to say it was as tough as it gets. Last week as he was sentenced, the boy reminded the court of that fact. Reading from a handwritten text, he delivered a heart wrenching appeal that must not be ignored. “I have lived a horrible life,” he told the court. “The Care Agency’s solution for me has been to have strangers come into my privacy and look after me like a dog, fed and watered. I have been an unloved dog which nobody wants to know...” In explaining his actions, he told the court that money he earned working had gone missing. While police had found a small amount of cannabis, no one had found his money, he said, adding: “I felt at breaking point, [with] no privacy and no respect for me or my property.”

How do we care for children like this? There is no easy solution. There is no doubt that some children require custody for their actions. But prison is not an environment for a teenager, even if they are separated from adult prisoners, something which is not always the case. Perhaps what is required is a dedicated secure facility for young offenders. But such a facility would be expensive to run and demand is limited. Would it be justified? Perhaps so, but at present, in the extreme cases that require it, there is a little option but prison.

Gibraltar’s carers, many of them Spanish nationals, deserve our full gratitude and support for the difficult work they do, which is made all the more challenging by the small size of our tight-knit community. In a place where everyone knows everyone else, it can be difficult to help youngsters start afresh, particularly those who have no family support. But how does a child in care end up feeling so alone, so helpless?

The Care Agency, for obvious reasons, is unable to comment on any specific case. But its chief executive, Natalie Tavares, explained how her staff works with young persons who present behaviours that place them or others in danger.

In cases that involve criminality and extreme risk-taking, the approach is a multi-disciplinary one, drawing on specialists including psychiatrists, psychologists, educators and social workers. Health officials and the police are also drawn in as necessary. The aim is to put in place a care plan to try and de-escalate a pattern of risky behaviour. Where necessary, carers are trained with the specific skills to deal with challenging behaviour. According to the Care Agency, every effort is made to try and avoid criminalising a child, because extreme actions are often a consequence of what they have been exposed to. And once inside the criminal justice vortex, it can be hard to get out.

“Although there may be occasions when it seems that all these interventions have been unsuccessful, this may not necessarily be the case,” Mrs Tavares said. “It is virtually impossible to evidence what may be prevented and we can only state that there is a likelihood that these interventions may have prevented more dangerous behaviours. Indeed, as you mention, these are the rare cases that come to the attention of the media and the criminal courts. However, what does not come to the fore are the cases where practitioners are able to work with children and young people and are able to, by the means of different programmes and interventions, de-escalate and enable changes to behaviour.”

The system has not given up on the boy who will spend Christmas in Windmill Hill prison, and neither has he given up on himself. He is receiving schooling in jail – 10 hours a week, the court was told - and is attending woodwork classes. He has engaged with his teacher and insists he wants to take full advantage of these lessons so that when he leaves prison, he can start to rebuild his life.

When the time comes, this community must be there to make sure he succeeds. It must also look deeply at cases like this, identify any shortfalls and take whatever steps necessary to address them. Because no matter how hard the care system is working to protect its wards, when a child stands up in court and says he feels like an unloved dog, something somewhere needs fixing.

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