Sunday, January 31, 2010

Savage Children

When our conception of children and childhood is challenged it is treated as an affront against ourselves. The result is an outpouring of atavistic hatred directed against the offending child, we re-conceive them as other than "children" and use this conceptual trick to permit ourselves to call for the infliction of heinous punishments. Arguably, a part of the pains we wish to inflict upon miscreant children is not a due measure of punishment for their crime, it is also an expression of our anger and distaste that they dared challenge our rosy view of children. We want to hurt them for not living up to our expectations.
Children who commit serious crimes against others present us with a special case. Not only do they challenge our expectations of childhood, they also present a challenge to society and the criminal justice system  -  Just what do we do with such criminal children?
It is common for the first, broad, reaction to be one of refusing to see such criminals as children at all. The level of responsibility that we expect of them, and the punishments expected to be levelled against them, are all distinctly "adult". No leniency is allowed, there is little recognition of the plasticity of children's minds and personalities, a resolute refusal to accept that children are not fully developed and fully responsible human beings.
So forceful is this rejection of their status of "child" that we unashamedly shrug off the modern obsession that is "protect the .children". While millions of adults have to undergo vetting to assess their potential to harm children, as a collective we fervently wish that the State inflict brutal treatment upon child criminals. This is a social schizophrenia worthy of Orwell's worst nightmares.
Children have always, on occasion, committed horrible crimes. The names of Bell, Thompson and Venables are firmly lodged in the popular culture. That we are affronted by child criminals is a lesson in our obsession to insist that children are inherently innocent and unblemished. The child criminal should hardly be punished for our modern insistence on characterising children in this way.
It is fortunate that the custodians of criminal justice, the mechanics who create and operate the machinery of punishment, have thwarted the popular will in these matters. Judges do give lesser sentences in recognition that children are not to be held as responsible as adults, and I hope they continue to do so despite populist outrage.
Once incarcerated, the question of how such children should be treated is central to our view of ourselves as a society. It seems that whilst we are against parental beatings of obnoxious kids, we are all in favour of inflicting the worst that the penal system can offer. We are a very mixed-up bunch.
Regardless of the mob - and the more vocal tabloids - the terms of confinement for serious child criminals has taken a fixed course for decades. This was largely a reaction to the shambolic regime inflicted upon Mary Bell, whose case forced government to consider the problems posed by such child criminals. The premise of their treatment is that they are children, distinct entities from adults, and that society should make an effort to reclaim them.
As a murderous child I experienced the regime that still stands in a handful of high security units dotted across the country. Yes, there are enough children who commit very serious crimes to require several such units. The cases which are lodged in the public psyche are merely the ones that the media bring to the fore; the others merit a paragraph or two in some local free-sheet, unheard of.
On my section of a special unit there were three Lifers; Two of us had killed, one was a serial rapist. There were four such sections in this special unit. Along with us were children who had committed lesser crimes and children who had committed no crime. The latter were those in local authority care who were so unmanageable that only very secure conditions could contain them. The youngest of us was eight years old; the oldest, seventeen
The physical conditions were precisely those that cause discomfort to some observers - very good. These units are, in effect, high security children's homes. They are not prisons, with all the physical degradations that entails. Soft furnishings, TV's, carpets, our own clothes, and so on. All of the features that allow some to characterise these units as being holiday camps do indeed exist.
Alongside these amenable conditions are the less amenable features of high security. Monitoring is constant. Whether I was in bed, on the toilet or in the bath, I was physically observed every ten minutes. Most of the day is spent under the direct observation of staff, whose ratio to children approached one-to-one. Hence the high cost of such units.
Education is a central focus of daily life. This is both a matter of legal requirements but also as a tool to foster pro-social attitudes and to encourage personal change. Without education, how do we explore the wider world and appreciate our place within it?
The physical conditions are the least important, no matter how they are a point of fixation for commentators. The essential value of these units is in their purpose, the effect they have on their charges.
Adolescence is a key period for the formation of the adult individual. This is a given. And I found that the unit allowed me the opportunity to engage with others in a facsimile of adolescence in the free world. In every aspect of my personality and social functioning I was forced to question and challenge myself, to explore how I perceived myself and others.
This period in life is when we form a central part of our personality and perceive our role in the world. With the right challenge and the proper encouragement, these units provide the environment for dangerous adolescents to develop into stable and socially useful young adults.
Some will find this offensive. Some will argue that the emphasis should be wholly upon punishment, even if the children in question are only ten years old. This is a base response and to act upon it would not only degrade our society and ourselves, but is to destroy the children.
Child criminals, particularly those who commit very serious crimes, pose a question. They challenge us to decide whether we focus on their punishment, which means writing them off as potential citizens for ever; or whether we believe that these children can be reclaimed, to become decent adults.
To date, the evidence suggests that these children can be reclaimed and that they can go on to lead successful lives that contribute to the general good. To abandon this approach merely to satisfy a temporary spasm of popular outrage would be a judgement on our criminal justice system and our society that we would regret long after the names of the children involved were forgotten.


  1. I love this piece and it has got me thinking about a girl I know ( well she is about 26/27 now ), who was sent to a high secure unit when she was eleven.

    She finds this fact hard to swallow and feels or felt ( I haven't seen her for a while now ) quite indignant about it.

    However, considering her harsh background and some very difficult situations she had to contend with as a very young child growing up, she is an amazing woman now.

    She has such capabilities that seem to be over and above the average person I know, particularly concerning her domestic environment.

    I always think she would make a marvelous person to run a commune, or some such similar institution.

    Of course she still struggles and has her faults, but I believe that her placement at the high secure unit actually did give her some excellent skills, I would really love to see her put them to good use, but she is still young, and I have high hopes for her for future to come.

    Ben this piece is great and has enabled me to understand more about how you yourself gained the strength of character you exhibit in your writings, thanks.

  2. Definitely a thought provoking piece.

  3. Good thinking Ben, would like to see more assessments like this than some of the awful stuff written about the recent two young boys who committed awful crimes. I wrote a comment on one newspaper report, along the lines that we should try to change the boys, and it was lost in the 100s of 'write the kids off for life' brigade.

  4. I was wondering when you'd be tackling this subject given the most recent case. I'm glad you did so and agree with you whole-heartedly.

  5. Well, you did it, Ben! That was a difficult one for yourself, but you tackled it perfectly. My own thoughts on the matter, you all ready know them from a previous comment posting.

    As a Gnostic, my main gripe is with trashy society, trashy parents, along with trashy authority. Which of those causes all of the others, I have no idea, as I am out of here one day (dead), and I'm not coming back. This might sound defeatist to some ears, but that is just how the stone is written, I'm afraid.

    I see, and hear of writings from 5,000years ago, speaking of the exact same daily toil, and suffering in a hell. Nothing is changed, nothing is learned by general society. Only the individual stands a chance of winning his keys, never a society. That is why you have moved on Ben, but, almost nothing else has.

    If it was down to me, you would get your release tomorrow, so you could at least create, and form an inner self, able to confront the future, and survive all that will get thrown at it.