Vicious circle of recidivism and repeat sentences

Andrew McLellan

By the age of 16, most of the young people who are likely to end up in Polmont Young Offenders Institution and HM Prison Cornton Vale have experience of being in care, and being a care giver to desperate adults. They will be a school refuser, a self-harmer, an alcohol abuser, a drug abuser, an offender and a victim. It is naive to blame schools, care homes, prisons, society. The awfulness is much worse than that.

There is despair: no family support, no good friends, no self-esteem. I remember, in my first month as chief inspector of prisons, the governor of Polmont saying to me that the most distressing thing was the absence of any sense of worth among those in his care.

Among the young men of Glasgow and Greenock and Lochgelly, what they have grown up with is not Barack Obama's inspiring "yes we can" but "naw we cannae".

What do we do with young men who offend over and over again? We send them to young offenders institutions over and over again. What did Einstein say was the definition of insanity? - "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".

The Venture Trust says: "We give people time and space in a wilderness setting, far away from the pressures of home; we present them with physical, emotional and social challenges that take them into a personal `stretch' zone where powerful learning takes place; then we help them evaluate what they learn, and how to put those lessons to work when they return home."

I asked a few sheriffs what they thought made a difference to difficult young men. Almost all mentioned the Venture Trust.

Then there's the Duke of Edinburgh's Award which, I used to think, was for people from privileged backgrounds. I have been very impressed with what the scheme has been able to do with young people on the brink of trouble. A retention rate of nearly 97 per cent among these young people who are living drifting, unorganised lives is remarkable. There was a drop of 45 per cent in the use of illegal drugs. Offending behaviour was reduced by 75 per cent among those participating in the project.

The biggest expenditure on working with young people to keep them out of prison is on community service and probation. The papers tell us that these schemes are a disaster. They are hopelessly underfunded and, of course, that means things go wrong. But in the Lothian and Borders Police area last year, there were 1,280 community service orders providing a total of 180,000 hours of unpaid work in the community. And over two- thirds of all community service orders in Scotland in the last three years were completed successfully. Of course that is not enough. Of course, they should be better resourced.

Meet Danny. Danny knows this process of coming into jail so well. Jails call it "reception": the first chilling steps through the door. Who knows what lies ahead? Only one in 10 of the young men who come through this reception in Polmont is a first offender. All the others - nearly 90 per cent - have been inside before. Yet punishment in the community has to justify its effectiveness every time, while the effectiveness of imprisonment is hardly ever questioned.

Danny is lucky, for he has a job: he is the governor's passman, or helper. Very few Polmont young men work all day, every day. Some will work mornings only, some will work when there is some work for them to do. Danny does his job extremely well. When I was hosting a big event in Polmont last year to launch my annual report and all sorts of top dogs were present, it was Danny who was the key man in making sure that everything ran smoothly.

Yet, as soon as Danny is released, everything tumbles in. He is 20 now, but he has been living in homes and residential schools and young offenders institutions since he was 13. Guess what age Danny was when he started dodging school to go on drinking sprees: he was eight. Alcohol is at the centre of all his problems. His first attendance at a problem- drinking programme was when he was 12.

When Danny is released from prison, he will sleep on a sofa at a friend's house or sometimes his sister will take him for a short while. He has served at least 15 prison sentences since he was 16. The longest he has managed to stay out of Polmont recently is one month; but usually he is rearrested within two or three days. Always his offences are to do with stealing alcohol from shops and hotels. What will happen when he is released the next time? You just know what will happen.

In Polmont, there is an alcohol programme. Danny has a good record of attendance and has done well in it. But as soon as he is out, it all evaporates.

There are other good programmes - drug programmes, relationships skills and anger management. "Constructs" is one which helps the young men to think about consequences. Most prisoners are like seven-year-olds; they do not think that "if I do X, then Y will follow". Constructs teaches them to think about consequences: "work out what is going to happen first". Or as one man said to me: "It teaches us how to be smarter crooks!"

Education, education, education. Remember that Danny started dodging school when he was eight. Most of the non-readers in prison have been lifelong school avoiders. What a difference it makes when someone learns to read. What a difference it makes for self-respect and for employment prospects.

I have not mentioned the visit room at Polmont. No one comes to visit Danny.

The chairman of the Parole Board has said: "We see second and third generations who have been born into chaotic drug misuse where there is often a complete absence of nurture. The research shows that if this absence of nurture goes on beyond aged two, or at a maximum three, then it cannot be reversed".

But it is much worse than that. It is not just that they have been convicted before. If you add together all the convictions of the 575 convicted young men in Polmont, it comes to 4,508. That is, on average, eight criminal convictions for every one of them.

This is despite the best efforts of Polmont. If that does not make you think .

Andrew McLellan is the outgoing chief inspector of prisons in Scotland. This is an extract from a recent address to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools.

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Andrew McLellan

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