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Young offenders' institutes are queuing up to produce an in-house journal. Michael Prestage finds out why.

Home Secretary Michael Howard declined to answer a questionnaire from the inmates at Prescoed Young Offenders' Institution in South Wales, but his refusal was one of the few minor hiccups experienced by a team of young would-be writers as they set about producing a magazine designed for fellow inmates in England and Wales.

"It would have only taken him a few minutes and he is responsible for us," says Andrew York, aged 19, serving 18 months for arson, and the only one of the magazine's editorial team with any previous experience of writing.

Prescoed, in Gwent, is the latest institution to produce an edition of Inside Stories, a national magazine produced by and for young offenders, under the auspices of Cheshire County Council.

There are three editions of Inside Stories published every academic year, with each being produced by a different institution, with a circulation this month of 5,500 people detained in young offenders institutions.

With a transitory population, many of the original journalistic volunteers at Prescoed who signed a contract to produce this edition of Inside Stories have already gone (discharged, transferred or in some cases absconded) but there is a six-strong team remaining.

This editorial board had free rein in commissioning, except for items which were racist, sexist or encouraged crime, and had to sift out 90 items out of more than 200 which were submitted for consideration.

There are articles on car crime, drug and alcohol abuse and life in the institution. Poems are particularly popular, along with drawings, a crossword and a sports quiz. There is a humorous piece about an inmate's girlfriend who beats him up and a tale of a prison soccer team goalkeeper who lets in 15 goals after falling out with a prison officer.

Prison officer Brian Lewis believes the magazine has given all involved a boost. He helped bring the project to the institution and worked closely with the youngsters involved on it. "The whole thing has been extremely positive for everyone," he says. "It is great to see the confidence the lads have gained as well as the new skills they have acquired. The experience will stand them in good stead for the future."

Each of the 51 youngsters at the young offenders' institute has to do a daily job and the magazine was produced in their spare time. Chris Perry, 20, says: "I volunteered because it was something to do. I'd never done anything like that before. It was pretty hard going putting it all together."

His own contributions were poems, mainly love poems. He also wrote a day in the life of a prisoner at Prescoed. He is serving six months for assault and affray. "The magazine gave cons (prisoners) a chance to show their feelings. "

Frank Melling, project director for Cheshire, says: "The magazine offers young prisoners the opportunity to take full responsibility for its publication. It allows them to experience the pleasures and strains of making their own real magazine."

A former teacher, he was the driving force behind In Our Own Words, a schools magazine with a circulation of 200,000, distributed among schools in Cheshire and the north west. British Nuclear Fuels is the current sponsor for that scheme and now has backed the young offenders' magazine.

A pilot project at Hindley Young Offenders Institute in Wigan, showed Frank Melling that the prisoners liked the idea, and with the approval of the Home Office, Inside Stories became a national publication.

The popularity of the project is such that the next available slot for institutions to produce an edition of Inside Stories is January 1996.

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