Where children don't belong

  • 2002-10-17
  • Helle Degn
The Baltic Times has previously reported on "Sasha" - a 17-year-old boy, convicted of burglary and vandalism, who is serving his sentence in a prison in a Baltic country. The major concern is that there are many youngsters around like Sasha.

The issue of children in prison should be of great concern to the society at large. In fact, the way a society cares for its children could be considered an indication of the level of respect for human rights and democratic development in that particular society. This is even more so with the way the children, even if accused or convicted of having committed an offense, are treated.

It must not be forgotten that young offenders are foremost children and should be given the special attention and care because they form a group especially vulnerable to abuse, victimization and violations against their rights.

To raise the awareness of these issues I conducted a round table meeting "Children in Prison" recently in Helsinki.

As the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) commissioner, I am concerned with the situation of minors in closed institutions in the Baltic Sea area. We know that children are often not separated from adult prisoners, that they do not enjoy the rights to adequate education, vocational training, recreation or nursing, that their pre-trial detention often exceeds any reasonable time limit, that they are not seeing their relatives as often as they are entitled to. These are a few things which we should not, but in fact still see in our region.

I would like to encourage the governments of all the Baltic states to devote special attention to this issue. The concerns have also been voiced by the Helsinki Committee and the European Union in the recently published progress reports for 2002. The EU points out that even though initial progress has been made, the length of pre-trial detention for juveniles is not always in conformity with international standards. It also points to the need to further improve prison conditions in all three Baltic countries, especially with regard to overcrowding and health and sanitary conditions.

The international commitments must be honored and both international and national standards respected. It is not enough to have them finely laid down on paper. After all, we are talking about the children - the future - of our own societies.

The most important efforts and changes naturally relate to a better set up of "crime-prevention," which could most effectively be guaranteed by fostering a process of personal development and education in a risk-free environment for all these children.

The round table meeting of specialists mentioned above stressed that the placement of a juvenile into prison should only be used as the last resort and for the minimum necessary period of time. The strictly punitive approaches simply do not work. There are numerous alternatives to the closed institutions, for example victim-offender mediation, youth contract schemes, therapy and also establishing shelters and foster families.

In order to solve the problems of children in prison, the cooperation of all institutions and organizations is needed: governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental. The close involvement of prison and social authorities should help to prevent imprisonment. And if there has been no other option than prison, social authorities should play a key role in creating the supportive environment for the reintegration of a child prisoner into the society by providing necessary programs, counseling and places to turn to.

In a democratic society a tool that holds many possibilities and great perspective is the involvement of the relevant non-governmental organizations into the process.

The NGOs can enhance transparency when they are given the possibility to monitor the closed institutions where youngsters are placed. Of course, these should be well-established, relevant NGOs which would be under obligation to publish their findings.

In some of the CBSS member states the NGOs already successfully operate youth centers, counsel young offenders, help with providing reintegration and rehabilitation programs. These may serve as good examples for the three Baltic states. Moreover, the NGOs need to carry on another important aspect of their activities, namely the lobbying for the appropriate legislation and the raising of public awareness in the field of children's rights issues.

Another measure that may prove helpful also for children in prison is the establishment in the CBSS Member States of "ombuds-institutions" that deal particularly with the protection of the rights of the child.