No place for any child

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A children’s prison? Surely what I meant to say was correctional institution, or even reform school, but not prison. We all know children do not belong in prison. Prisons are for adults: hardened criminals, repeat offenders, those a danger to the public.

But children’s prisons—which are often more violent and oppressive than their adult counterparts—are a growing worldwide reality.

It is estimated that there are some 1 million children in prisons worldwide. Some time ago, a group of Americans visited the children’s prison in Cariacica, Espirito Santo, Brazil—the very prison that led to this April’s formal condemnation of the nation of Brazil by the Organization of American States’ Human Rights Courts. Burt McDowell, a doctor from California, wrote this about his experience there:

I had been warned that going into the children’s prison in Vitoria would be difficult. We visited at night. I tried to prepare myself for the sights, smells, and sounds of the place, but I was still shocked. The physical and spiritual darkness was oppressive. A barren, crumbling cement building housed the children in windowless cells with no running water, bathing facilities, heat, or fresh air. Toilets were holes in the cement floor. Some cells held up to five kids behind heavy steel doors. No medical or dental care was provided. The darkness was punctuated by a single, naked light bulb hanging in about half of the cells – the only light we saw.

In this gloom, it was hard to believe that the dark forms that approached the steel bars were human. Yet as we talked and prayed with the kids, most seemed desperate to begin a new life, to be given another chance. They were longing for a touch, a handshake, or any encouragement. Yet they were utterly hopeless that their lives could ever change. As hard as going in was, walking out, leaving them in darkness, was even harder. I did not sleep well that night, haunted by the images of caged children.

What Dr. McDowell saw there is a way of life for a million children worldwide. Try a search for “children’s prison” and look at the horror stories that show up. And this is not just a problem that occurs in some war-ravaged, ethnic cleansing battlefield country. It’s happening all over the world. Children are sometimes locked up for no greater offence than living on the streets—being an orphan, it seems, makes a child a criminal.

I was sick and in prison, and you came to visit me.

Really? Did we?

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