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How do 11-year-old girls end up in prison?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014
The Honourable Madame Justice Betsy Ann Lambert-Peterson, right, and Her Worship Magistrate Gail Gonzales speaking about the rising numbers of young women committing criminal offences. photo: abraham diaz

In December 2013, five months before she was killed, Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal called on what was then the newly-formed Child Protection Task Force to investigate and consider how children accused of acts of indiscipline were being transferred from official orphanages and industrial schools to the Golden Grove Prison for women in Arouca.


On December 12, a few days before her statement to the press, Seetahal represented an 11-year-old girl who had been living at the St Dominic’s Children Home in Belmont, but had been sent by a magistrate to the women’s prison for breaching the rules of the orphanage. Seetahal said there were seven young girls in prison at the time of her statement.


There was a report in February, 2011, of a 15-year-old sent to Golden Grove after being arrested on charges of drug possession. Another in October 2012 of two 15-year-olds remanded and sent to the women’s prison for disorderly conduct, one for the use of obscene language. Periodic media stories of young women under 18, sent to the women’s adult correctional facility in Arouca, give the impression that the practice is sporadic. But the truth is that is a more common one with, according to magistrates Justice Betsy Ann Lambert-Peterson and Magistrate Gail Gonzales, who agreed to explain the transfer process to the T&T Guardian, “the number of girls in jails is changing weekly.”


Seated side by side in a conference room in the Hall of Justice, Port-of-Spain, Lambert-Peterson and Gonzales attempt to cover all the facts as they relate to how girls can end up in prison. They claim that sensationalised media reports undermine the reality that especially in the under-16 age group, prison is a last resort, reserved for when all other avenues have been exhausted. They express too that they wish to encourage the view that while magistrates are seen as responsible for the decision, that the road to prison starts long before them, often with parents and caregivers who have abdicated their roles.


Under the Children Act when a child under the age of 14 is brought before the court or has to be remanded into custody, that child will go to an industrial school or to an orphanage. The industrial school for girls is St Jude’s in Port-of-Spain, and the orphanage would either be St Dominic’s or the St Mary’s Home in Tacarigua. 


The most obvious reason that a young girl is brought before the court is when she has been accused of a criminal offence—crimes like larceny, possession of drugs, and breaking and entering. But one of “the increasing avenues” through which young girls under 15 are being seen in court is for “being beyond control,” which, says Lambert-Peterson, could mean a number of things.


“Because of the social circumstances of the parents,” she says, “it may very well be that a child may be not in a position to be well-supervised by the parent and may not adhere to simple instructions of the parent and the parent is just overwhelmed.” Or, she says, young girls may be keeping bad company and parents feel unable to control their actions. Yet another route is when a young girl may have been a victim of a crime and is institutionalised for her own safekeeping while allegations are being investigated. The range of reasons for remand to the aforementioned institutions means that young girls who are victims are often housed, especially in the case of St Jude’s, with those accused of a crime.


Gonzales explains that outside of girls getting expelled from an orphanage or the industrial school, there is no difficulty in terms of where girls 15 and under are placed, when remanded. The greater problem she says, lies in the 16-18-year-old age group, where “there is no institution that we can place them … these young women are being sent to prison cause there is no other place to put them.” In this age group, once convicted of a crime, a young woman will be deemed an adult and sent to the women’s prison.


Lambert-Peterson explains the legislation under which young women are sent to prison was written when “historically young women did not commit those offences and so there was no need … but certainly for the past 20 years there has been a phenomenal increase in terms of young women being charged with criminal offences.”


“When we look at the legislation,” says Gonzales, “it isn’t gender-biased—there is a youth offenders detention act—it doesn’t specify whether it is male or female but when you look at the regulations under the act they specifically speak of regulations according to males but there is no regulation that refers to females.” 


“We have realised this lacuna existing, certainly in the 15 to 18 years that we have been sitting but there has never been any resolution.”


For young men of the same age, charged with similar crimes, there is the Youth Training Centre (YTC). Here, at least in theory and under guiding regulations, a range of services can be accessed on-site including training, counselling and other social services. 


The centre caters to young men in an extended age range of 15-21. 


Lambert-Peterson points out that if convicted even a day before he turns 18, potentially a young man can access the rehabilitative services of YTC for three years past legal adulthood — in her opinion, an advantage young male offenders have over their female counterparts, for whom there are no youth protective services after age 16. 


“I think it’s a bit unfair,” says Gonzales, “because if you look at the tenor and the intent of the regulations for youth offenders, the intent is really to facilitate his reformation, education and the repression of crime and it is my view that when some of these young women …the ones charged with the possession of marijuana, the ones charged with probably burning their baby’s hands, the ones charged with larceny [who] you have no place to send but to prison…the kind of training and arrangement and facility and social services that are available for a male offender, they don’t have that benefit.” 


She highlights too, that when a young man is sent to YTC, after serving his sentence his conviction is sealed. For young women, however, because they have to be charged as adults, their conviction will follow them for the rest of their lives.


The advantages do not end there. While admitting that she doesn’t know how often it is used, Gonzales says a young man sent to YTC, “can be released on a licence from the Commissioner of Prisons at any point in time once he is satisfied that there is a responsible adult, that they are no longer a threat to society or whatever so even though we sentence them, let’s say they are 16 and we sentence them to a course of training for four years, they are supposed to come out at 20 and by the time they reach 17 they settle down, pursuing education, parents involved, the Commissioner of Prisons is free under the act to say ok I am releasing you on licence. The licence can be revoked but you can go back to your family.”


“In the absence of a similar facility for the females,” she continues, “they are denied that.” Gonzales explains that if at 16 a young woman is convicted for possession of marijuana, she will be considered an adult for sentencing purposes because she can no longer be sent to St. Jude’s. “Let’s say I sentence you for 12 months or whatever,” she says, “the point is you have to do your sentence. The Commissioner of Prisons can’t say you are a young person so I can let you out on licence.” 


Even in the wake of such gross inequality, the stories of young women over the age of 16 sent to Golden Grove, are not usually the ones that make the headlines. The burning question remains, but how does an 11-year-old girl end up in prison?


In Part II, the jurists offer alternatives to putting young girls in jail and how the situation can be dealt with by improving family life and parenting.


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