The Government's plans to cure young criminals by subjecting them to harsh military discipline and rigorous physical training in armed forces establishments have been strongly condemned by more than two dozen organisations concerned with the penal system.
A report, Young Offenders and the Glasshouse, published by the Penal Affairs Consortium, an umbrella group representing 27 groups including prison officers and probation officers' associations as well as penal reform groups, questions the assumed link between physical fitness and moral virtue. It argues that military corrective training designed for soldiers is inappropriate for civilian offenders.
The Government has ignored evidence showing that both the "short sharp shock" experiment under Margaret Thatcher's government and the "boot camps" in the United States fail to prevent re-offending, it says.
Paul Cavadino, chairman of the consortium, said this week that the Government's determination to press ahead with the scheme in the face of opposition from the penal service and scepticism from the armed services owed more to electoral imperatives than any belief that the experiment would work.
He said: "The only obvious explanation why the Government is going ahead is that the toughness of the scheme makes it publicity-worthy and electorally popular. This scheme is a waste of resources and offers nothing that is not already available in conventional detention centres."
Last month it emerged that Home Office and Ministry of Defence officials had agreed there would be no practical or legal obstacles to placing a group of young civilian offenders at the military corrective training centre at Colchester - dubbed "the glasshouse" - for the last six months of their sentences.
The scheme is expected to start in June and will run for an experimental period of 12 months, after which it will be evaluated, though it will be three and a half years before re-conviction statistics are available.
At the Colchester centre, inmates rise at six and spend their day doing intense physical exercise punctuated by kit inspections, chores and parade drills. There is a fanatical emphasis on cleanliness, and one of the exercises involves running races carrying telegraph poles.
The consortium questions whether this will help young offenders become responsible members of civilian society. The approach works for offending soldiers because they are already motivated to adapt to military life and have the prospect of returning to a career in the army, while civilian offenders are "released to unemployment and the inner-city problems which helped to lead them into crime in the first place."
The report concludes that a combination of education, skills-training, help with drug or alcohol abuse and psychological efforts to challenge attitudes to crime and to society have been proved to be most effective in preventing re-offending. It said the glasshouse plan "is a misuse of resources, particularly at a time when reductions in the unit costs of penal establishments are leading to cuts in prison education."
A spokeswoman for the Prison Service said that the consortium's report was "somewhat premature" because the details of the regime for young offenders at Colchester had not yet been worked out. She said: "We're still talking to the MOD."