Lancet Editorial – Youth without freedom [UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty]

Featured Journal Content

The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health
Volume 4, ISSUE 1, P1, January 01, 2020
Youth without freedom
The 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) on Nov 20, 2019, is a chance to reflect on the global status of children’s rights. A report by UNICEF addresses the progress made in the past three decades, including reduced child mortality rates and increased global access to education, but notes many outstanding challenges such as increasing poverty, dangers posed by climate change, and declining vaccination rates. A Viewpoint by Jeff Goldhagen and colleagues discusses these threats to children’s health through a rights, justice, and equity lens.

One focus of the convention is a child’s right to an appropriate justice system, protection from danger and conflict, and provision of humane detention when necessary. It stresses that deprivation of a child’s liberty should only be used as a measure of last resort, and for the shortest appropriate period of time. The UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, published on Nov 20, 2019, is therefore timely because it provides the first comprehensive data determining the magnitude of the issue of children deprived of liberty, its possible justifications and root causes, as well as conditions of detention and their harmful effect on the health and development of children.

The UN study indicates that at least 1·3 million children are globally deprived of liberty per year; an estimated 410 000 in the administration of justice, 330 000 in migration-related detention, 35 000 in armed conflict situations, and 1500 for national security reasons. An additional 19 000 children are living with their primary caregivers in prisons and a further 1 million children are in temporary police custody. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex children and adolescents, boys, and those with a disability are at increased risk, and constitute a disproportionate share of institutionalised youth. External risk factors also contribute—eg, ineffective child welfare systems, insufficient support for family environments, low minimum age of criminal responsibility, harsh sentencing, discrimination, socioeconomic hardships, and a lack of resources for the administration of justice.

The UNCRC specifies that when children cannot live with their families, “the State should endeavour to provide a family-like environment where they can develop their personality, their emotional relationships with others, their social and educational skills and their talents”. Due to the formative nature of childhood, deprivation of liberty during development can have highly detrimental effects on a child’s physical and mental health. Although there is little evidence that detention alone is a primary cause of health problems, living in overcrowded conditions increases the risk of communicable diseases, unnecessary restrictions on movement and physical activity negatively affect development, and abuse or neglect while in detention often cause or compound mental and cognitive health problems, such as anxiety, depression, or regression of language. Often, health problems in children deprived of liberty are further exacerbated by limited accessibility to and low quality of health care.

On Nov 21, WHO released a status report on prison health in Europe detailing the health status of those incarcerated in the region. The data present a dire situation, showing enormous health disparities between people detained in prison and those living in the community, and highlighting the increased risk of suicide and self-harm. The report suggests that prisons and other institutions should be considered as public health opportunities, where existing health conditions can be treated and improved, and interventions to promote healthy lifestyles and positive behavioural changes can be administered. Such approaches are particularly appealing in the context of youth detention. While adolescence is a period of unique vulnerability, it also offers great potential because many children and young people are receptive to behavioural change and interventions are applied early enough for any lifestyle modifications to make enormous gains in future health outcomes.

The UN study shows that sentencing children to custodial prison sentences remains widespread, despite recommendations that even when a child has committed a crime, alternative solutions such as probation, foster care, or education and vocational training programmes should be considered. Where alternatives to custodial prison sentences cannot be found, it is imperative that detained youth are able to access the same standard of health care as available in the community. The UNCRC declares that all children and adolescents have a right to the highest attainable standard of health. We must not accept anything less for those young people deprived of their liberty.