Harsh regime is simply a gut reaction

1st September 1995 at 01:00
As the Government considers new measures for handling juvenile offenders, David Bell recalls a recent visit to a boot camp in Georgia.

Eastman, Georgia lies seventy miles or so south of Atlanta. Apart from a gas station and a few shops, it is an unremarkable southern town with a couple of thousand residents. Yet, it is the home for the Georgia Board of Corrections' radical new approach for dealing with juvenile offenders. It is an all-American boot camp.

Like virtually every other state, Georgia has lost patience with young criminals. When Governor Zell Miller was elected in l990, he promised to do something about crime. An increasingly conservative state legislative was all too happy to deal more toughly with offenders and Eastman was to be the first in a series of such camps across the state. It had 70 inmates initially and is planned to have 200 within three years. It was also part of a package of measures to deal with juvenile crime, which included trying youngsters as adults for certain capital offences, implementing tougher sentences for firearms offences, and spending millions of dollars on improved security measures in schools. More cynically, with the Board of Corrections being the largest employer in Georgia, state senators and representatives are queuing up to have new facilities built in their districts.

A number of features made Eastman unique. First, it was run by the Board of Corrections, the service that ran the adult prisons in Georgia. All other young people aged between 13 and 17 were handled by the State's Department of Children and Family Services. This was a deliberate policy to set Eastman apart and was a powerful statement that the more traditional liberal regimes for young people had failed. No concessions were to be made for the age of the inmates. Second, the whole approach of Eastman was to be modelled on a US marine basic training camp. Inmates were always in uniform and subject to perpetual physical training. They were marched everywhere in double time and were always accompanied by yelling guards. All conversations with prisoners, officers and visitors began and ended with "Sir, Yes, Sir". Thirdly, the living quarters were of a high security nature with inmates living in single cells in enclosed blocks.

Visiting Eastman was a curious experience, full of contradictions. The warden, a highly experienced official within the State prison system, was a deeply conservative figure who supported the hard-line treatment. Yet at the same time, he saw the importance of a secure environment for young people with a strong emphasis on education and vocational training. It was interesting that the education work was one of the most outstanding features of the camp. There was an intensive programme of basic literacy and numeracy, and many inmates, barely literate on arrival, had made significant progress. At the other end, more able youngsters were able to prepare for their high school graduation diploma.

Furthermore, for all the political rhetoric of dealing with the most violent offenders, Eastman actually catered for the most disruptive young people within the justice system, many of whom had not committed the most serious offences. The racial tension which is still so characteristic of Georgia was never far from the surface. Virtually all the inmates were black and all the staff were white.

Did it work? It was early days at Eastman and hard to come to a judgment. However, the early signs were not encouraging. For one, it was not clear if any real thought had been given to how the young people would cope with life outside the regimented and controlled structure of Eastman. Military-style discipline may have a superficial political appeal but for many of the young people concerned, it was a million miles removed from the worlds they had come from.

There was also a sense that just below the surface of order and regimentation, there was treatment of young people which was hardly conducive to building up self-discipline and respect. Particular practices; the way in which young people in isolation were treated, would not be tolerated in institutions in the UK.

Perhaps most depressing of all was the sense that the boot camp was not really an attempt to handle the complex issue of juvenile offending. Rather, it was a gut reaction from a society that had decided that "something had to be done".

Tougher regimes may be worthy of consideration, but they have to be part of a coherent system for tackling juvenile crime. The most obvious parallel with this country is the sense in which political concern about law and order comes to dominate policy-making. The problem is, as Georgia had found, what happens next if the boot camp fails? Without a clear rationale for dealing with juvenile offenders, the potential solutions can become more bizarre and extreme. And as one commentator said in Georgia, reflecting on the new public mood about juvenile crime: "Let's just be careful what we ask for, because we might not like what we get".

David Bell is chief education officer with Newcastle City Council. He visited Eastman Boot Camp during his year in Georgia as a Harkness Fellow of the Commonwealth Fund of New York

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