Irish Penal Reform Trust

Case Study 2: Imprisonment of Children in Ireland

Since it was established in 1956, St. Patrick’s Institution has been a byword for the failure of the State to properly care for children in the criminal justice system. While the reformatories and industrial schools for children had been closed down by the late 1970s, St. Patrick’s Institution - an adult prison - has continued as a grim symbol of punitiveness towards children.

St Patrick's PrisonClosure of St. Patrick’s Institution was recommended in the Whitaker Report in 1985, and the inhumane treatment of inmates was consistently highlighted by national and international bodies over the following three decades.

[Image: St. Patrick's Institution.]

Since 1994, IPRT has played a central role in maintaining pressure on Government about the need to end the detention of children in the prison system. In all our work – in every statement, report, press release detailing the most serious issues in Ireland's prison system – we consistently hammered home two core issues that were a blot on Ireland’s human rights record:

  • the ongoing imprisonment of children in Ireland, in breach of international human rights standards;
  • and the lack of access by children so held to an independent complaints mechanism.

So what did we do about it?

Artane Industrial School We did our research. We laid out the requirements of Ireland’s international obligations to children in detention, and bolstered our statement of these clear obligations with international evidence and best practice in dealing with children in conflict with the law. We set out our position that the detention of children in prison was among Ireland’s most serious human rights breaches, and must end.

[Image: St. Joseph's Industrial School, Artane, which closed in 1969.]

And then we went about campaigning for real change. We made submissions. We published briefings and reports. We held seminars. We issued press releases. We talked to the media, and we talked to international monitoring bodies. We built alliances with the key stakeholders in the youth justice system and the wider children and youth sector. We fought myths and assumptions about crime committed by children and young people with facts and analysis. We focused on the scientific evidence around young people's capacity for change.

In everything we did, we insisted that prison is an entirely inappropriate place to hold children, and that all children in detention must have access to an independent complaints mechanism such as the Ombudsman for Children.

What was the result?

Following more than 25 years of commitments by successive governments but little action, on 2nd April 2012 the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, announced concrete plans to end the practice of detaining children in St Patrick’s Institution by 2014. The Government committed €50m for the building of six units over 3 years, creating 30 new spaces, at Oberstown, Lusk, Co Dublin, where the three existing children detention schools are located.

This development was welcomed by the Ombudsman for Children, the Irish Penal Reform Trust, Barnardos, the Children’s Rights Alliance, Fr. Peter McVerry and others who have long been campaigning for the immediate end to what has been a serious blot on Ireland’s human rights record.

International pressure came from the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), the United Nations Committee against Torture, the European Committee on Social Rights, and by Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

As of 1st May 2012, all newly remanded or sentenced 16-year old boys are to be detained in the children detention facilities at Oberstown instead of St Patrick’s Institution. The last 16 year-old in St Patrick’s Institution was released at the end of July 2012.

On 23rd June 2012, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Justice and Equality removed the subsection from the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 which excluded children detained in St Patrick’s Institution from the complaints remit of the Ombudsman for Children.

In October 2012, the Inspector of Prisons published a highly critical report about St. Patrick’s Institution, identifying serious problems at the prison including mistreatment and bullying of boys, excessive use of force, excessive use of punishment, and a completely deficient complaints system.

Following that report, the Minister for Justice announced his intention to close the prison completely for all persons under the age of 21.

Where to next?

IPRT continues to campaign for a progressive and effective youth justice system, which prioritises prevention and early intervention strategies over punitive and ineffective responses to crime committed by young offenders. We also continue to monitor that commitments by Government, hard won and all too fragile, are being met.

At the end of 2012, IPRT began a feasibility study into a discrete project focusing on responses to offending by 18-21 year-old young adults, looking at: best practice from other jurisdictions; recommendations of international rights bodies; and emerging scientific research around the development of the adolescent brain, peak ages of offending, and peak ages of desistance and change.

It is a very exciting area, and one that offers great potential for positive interventions leading to better life outcomes for young people who fall into patterns of offending behaviour. Watch this space!

For more information on how you can support our work, please see here.

Key actions by IPRT

IPRT is one of a number of loud voices who have demanded of successive Governments to end the detention of children in St. Patrick’s Institution. Specific actions by IPRT in more recent years that contributed to the commitments in 2012 include:

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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