Flying with the crows

24th October 2008 at 01:00
A new outreach programme gives pupils the chance to experience life as prisoners for a day

If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows. Discuss.

This would be an interesting enough essay topic or debating point that you might set for an S3 social and vocational skills class. But when presented in the light of a serious crime you have just witnessed, the question gains an immediacy - a reality - which engages at a different level.

The serious crime in this case is wilful fire-raising. Oliver and his mates have just set fire to a bin. A stupid bit of laddish bravado, perhaps, but the bin is adjacent to an open classroom window. Not only does the school burn down, a fire-fighter is killed fighting the blaze.

The 16-year-old lads go to prison. Oliver, who struck the match, serves his full term: eight years.

This is a DVD. Oliver, who appears in the footage, is the real perpetrator of the crime. Released at the age of 24, he wanted to make the film.

"Sure, Oliver didn't mean to burn down the school. Nor did his mates," Gordon Fox, community and safety officer for Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade, tells a class of S3 pupils at West Calder High in West Lothian. "He didn't mean to kill a fire-fighter. Nor did his mates," he adds; which brings us back to the question of "wilful" - "for which compulsion or ignorance or accident cannot be pleaded" - and of flying with the crows.

Mr Fox's presentation is part of a pilot Lifetime Outreach Programme, which is led by prison officers and intended to be rolled out across Scotland in the next year, supported by the Community Justice Authority.

It is a day of workshops conducted by different agencies, including the fire brigade, police, Procurator Fiscal's Office, the Red Cross, drug and alcohol services and Families Outside, a charity which runs the Scottish Prisoners' Family Helpline.

The man in charge of the day is HMP Edinburgh prison officer Craig Mercer and, for the length of the day, all the participating S3 pupils are prisoners.

"The day is about choices, about making good choices and about being aware of the consequences of bad choices," he says.

"A lot of young people live for the moment. This is about getting them to take a step back and think about where that moment might lead."

This is more than apparent in the police workshop where a knife fight is being role-played by two pupils wearing protective suits and using felt pens as their weapons. The fight lasts all of 10 seconds, by which time both pupils' suits are well marked by pen slashes.

"Even a slight cut in the wrong place can paralyse or kill," says PC Andrew Maudsley. "Forget bravado. If you run, you live."

In the "sheriff court", in an adjacent classroom, the "accused" is claiming he was carrying a knife for protection.

"That claim would gain no sympathy from a real court. You are guilty of possessing an offensive weapon," procurator fiscal Alison Innes tells the pupil, adding: "A murder is often an assault that goes wrong."

Throughout the day, the West Calder High "prisoners" are escorted between workshops by prison officers - no talking, no hands in pockets and no mobile phones. They are introduced to the realities of imprisonment, from reception ("like no other reception you have ever been in"), body searches and prison cells to work, prison clothes and food.

"Do you get a choice of food?" asks a pupil.

"Yes," says a prison officer. "You can take it or leave it."

At lunchtime, the pupils are allowed half-an-hour prison exercise, early lunches dependent on behaviour. As the prisoners circle their "yard" in pairs, Mr Mercer calls them to a halt.

"Turn about! Someone has just complained that this is boring - so you can now walk in the opposite direction!"

By now the pupils have a fair idea of the strictures, the ignominy and the monotony of prison life; and, courtesy of Families Outside, an understanding of the effects imprisonment has on families. They are clearly engaged throughout the process and the day, right up to Mr Mercer's pointed valediction: "I hope I never see any of you again."

Any school can apply to take part in the Lifetime Outreach Programme. Contact Craig Mercer, Community Links Centre, HMP Edinburgh.

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