Juvenile offenders gain inside knowledge

29th August 1997 at 01:00
Better education is the key to rehabilitating young offenders - and to preventing teenagers turning to crime. Nicolas Barnard joins classes held behind bars

Jimmy Hughes looks every inch the prison screw: big, bullet-headed, sergeant-major moustache, heavy keys chained to his belt. Then he opens his mouth.

The broad Scottish accent recalls Mr Mackay in Porridge, but the words could come from a teacher or social worker. "The lads don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," he says.

Mr Hughes is head of inmate activities at Lancaster Farms Young Offenders Institute, in charge of organising training, education, personal development and PE for 500 young men aged 15 to 21 who can be inside for anything from a week to several years.

Lancaster Farms is a strange hybrid - a prison that is also a training and support agency in a rural complex a stone's throw from the Lakes. It looks like a university campus until you notice the barbed wire and bars.

It is a successful model that is spreading to Britain's 21 other such institutions, with its pioneering training programme for staff on working with adolescents, and an innovative link with the YMCA.

Since it opened in 1993, Lancaster Farms has been widely praised - not least by former prisons inspector Sir Stephen Tumim - as it pursues a determinedly different ethos: to treat inmates as individuals, not stereotypes and, in the words of the prison's slogan, to "prevent the next victim".

"You can treat people like animals and lock them up. But to be humane costs nothing. We don't cost any more to run than any other prison," says Mr Hughes. "Their punishment is having their liberty taken away. They are not here to be punished. We have to address their offending behaviour.

"People have to get rid of this idea that we have to create an austere regime. It does nothing for the inmates, nothing for the staff, nothing to protect the public purse and nothing to prevent the next victim."

To that end, education programmes covering everything from basic skills to A-levels run alongside vocational training and - perhaps most importantly - personal development courses aimed at addressing offending and preparing the young offenders for life outside.

That is where the link with the YMCA comes in. For three years the YMCA and the young offenders institute have been working together on a scheme that helps inmates inside and carries it through to support, training and accommodation after release. It was a natural alliance that arose out of Lancaster Farms' decision to work in the public eye. The YMCA was one of a host of organisations invited inside to see how the prison worked.

"Nobody ever thought of bringing the YMCA into a prison before, but if you think about it, it's the best place for it," Mr Hughes says.

The YMCA's nationwide network of youth centres, training programmes and hostels is the perfect support for inmates who may have trouble moving back into the outside world - whether through family problems, a desire to break out of a circle of offenders or simply through a lack of social skills.

Pete Crossley, one of two YMCA workers who runs a club two nights a week in the prison, says: "We bridge the gap, working with young people on addressing offending behaviour and linking them up with their local association on their release."

In extreme cases, the organisation has been able to provide accommodation - "the biggest issue facing lads when they are released," Mr Crossley says.

It can also play a key part in finding voluntary work and training programmes for young people to continue the progress they have made at Lancaster Farms. A number of ex-inmates have found voluntary work at Lakeside, the YMCA's outdoor activity centre in Cumbria.

The YMCA has even intervened personally with employers to urge them to take on former inmates. "Not only do YMCAs employ people but they know employers in their local area. We have acted on ex-inmates' behalf, not just with references but going along and saying somebody can be trusted and is worth giving a chance," Mr Crossley said.

It's an alliance that has been taken as a model for national collaboration between young offenders' institutions and the YMCA. In Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, the YMCA is even setting up a centre within the prison with a paid youth worker on full-time duty.

Although Lancaster Farms' impact on reoffending is difficult to quantify - since inmates are hard to track once they leave - there is a sense that they have been given routes out of offending, and that if they do return it will be later rather than sooner.

The YMCA classes offer two-fold support: advice workshops one night a week, and training sessions in personal skills the other. They look at offending, self-esteem and key skills such as team working and leadership.

"The problems they face are the issues the vast majority of young people face - housing, employment, drugs and health issues. But in addition they have this reputation of being an ex-offender," Mr Crossley says. "We are giving them coping strategies."

The YMCA has also played a part in Lancaster Farms' extensive peer education programme where inmates are trained to give advice and support - on anything from reading to HIV - to others on their wing. It includes peer counselling, where inmates trained in counselling share a cell with youngsters feared to be suicidal.

That underlines the reality of Lancaster Farms. Parts of it may look like a youth club or a school, the lads may take "touchy-feely" courses on subjects such as becoming a father - but the cells leave you in no doubt. Toilets have replaced slop-buckets, but the metal furniture is still bolted to the wall and the rooms measure six feet by eight.

And when the cell doors close, Lancaster Farms is as quiet as a church.

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