Islanders take moral umbrage at criticism

Jason Bennetto finds the residents of the Isle of Man angry at outside inference
News that a 12-year-old girl was being incarcerated in a Victorian jail on the Isle of Man provoked an unusual response from the islanders.

Many of those who telephoned a local radio chat show were outraged and angry at what had happened.

However, their fury was not at the island's continued practice of imprisoning children, but at the uppity British media and do-gooders for interfering, and against one of their own inhabitants for breaking ranks and going public on a practice he described as a "scandal" and "barbaric".

The 72,000 residents of the craggy island,16 miles off the Scottish coast in the Irish Sea, have been thrown into a heated debate since The Independent revealed last Saturday that a 12-year-old girl was being held on remand on charges of assault and criminal damage at a prison annexe. Under Manx law children as young as 10 can be detained at the island's only jail.

Rosemary Crosby, the governor of the Victoria Road prison in Douglas, said: "English people do not understand that we hear reports all time about 'ratboy' and other 14- and 15-year-olds who cannot be touched by the law. You are powerless to act. The Isle of Man takes a different view - that we do have authority and responsibility over our children. Our society still prides itself on this.

"People do not take kindly to being told by England that what they are doing is wrong and morally inferior."

The island has a reputation for tough action on crime and intolerance. Its inhabitants are fiercely proud of its independent identity - it is a Crown dependency and not part of the UK or European Union - and are prepared to fight for it.

The United Nations Human Rights Convention forced the Isle of Man to change its laws on corporal punishment and homosexuality. In 1992, the island's parliament voted to decriminalise sexual acts between consenting men, but only after the British government threatened to intervene. A year later hanging was abolished, but at the same time the island's government voted to retain birching.

The police also have a reputation for taking a hard line on juvenile offenders. Without an independent Crown Prosecution Service it is left up to the police whether to bring charges. Last year, out of 625 crimes involving juveniles, 242, or about two-fifths, were prosecuted, this included 89 children aged 10 to 13. A further 43 children were cautioned.

A Manx government report recently acknowledged that the use of imprisonment has resulted in the island's jail population being 12.5 per cent higher per head of the population than in the UK. Overall levels of crime are lower than in Britain.

A middle-aged Manx woman walking alongside the island's jail yesterday had little sympathy for the 12-year-old girl. "Just because they are nine, ten, or 12 they should still be made responsible for their actions. A girl that age will know the difference between right and wrong.

"People in England automatically think we are barbaric because of the birching issue, but we look at how the authorities' hands are tied in dealing with youngsters and think we have got it right."

Not everyone supports this approach. Linda Coe, a shop worker in Douglas, said: "I think its disgraceful. The prison is not fit for adults, let alone children."

Others have contacted the girl's lawyer, Terence McDonald, to express their anger and disbelief.

Mr McDonald said yesterday: "Many people and the politicians are concerned about the island's image and do not want to frighten off the financial sector or tourists. But this does not matter, we need to ensure that our children are treated properly.

"We are not a poor country and it is to our shame that we are looking children up in prisons and forcing them to sleep in cells."