Charmion Togba was not the kind of kid you'd have wanted on your patch. He says it himself. At the age of 16, he was manufacturing crack cocaine and "doctoring" guns for contacts. But that's all changed. Today he works with children at risk, and this summer he is running programmes for the Arts and Offenders' Unit Splash Extra programme, funded by the Arts Council and Youth Justice Board. Reflecting on the change, he gives a big smile: "It was prison that turned me around. I was angry, directionless and saw only a future in crime. The place I was sent treated me with decency and helped me see I could make different choices. And gave me the opportunity to develop in a way I wanted."
It's not what you expect to hear from someone locked up at Her Majesty's Pleasure while still just a child - Charmion was 17 at the time and this was his second sentence. His first sentence, at the age of 16, served at Feltham Young Offender Institution (YOI), had done nothing to improve his frame of mind: "You learnt survival of the fittest, to shut up and shut down . . . I came out more not less ready to commit crimes."
But his second sentence was served at Huntercombe YOI near Oxford, a place that is pinpointed by many radical thinkers on juvenile punishment as having a particularly humane and constructive ethos and regime. It startled Charmion to find that the governor, Paul Mainwaring, had brought in musical instruments and set up a recording studio because so many inmates were keen to make music. Charmion developed his recording skills, took NVQs, was given a job training other inmates. Before his release, the prison helped him get funding from the Prince's Trust to return on a regular basis and keep training inmates, "so I didn't have that terrible thing that trips so many kids up, even if they want to stay straight, of having nothing when they get out". He was also funded by the trust to start his own company, Genocis, running arts and multimedia programmes with children who risked following a similarly delinquent trajectory to his own.
If this were an isolated case, it would be risky to hold it up as proving anything. But in the course of 18 months spent talking with children - boys and girls - in six YOIs around the country for a book published earlier this year (Locked In - Locked Out: the experience of young offenders out of society and in prison, Calouste Gulbenkian, £8.95), I was startled at how many said prison had given them something they needed and could not get outside: regular meals, a bed to sleep on, people who would listen to them, a chance to take stock of their lives and escape from a chaotic, drug-fuelled, out-of-control spiral that would have led them deeper into crime.
Often they praised a particular member (or members) of staff for caring about them and giving them valuable support and guidance. Education and skills training they would not, or felt they could not, get outside proved unexpectedly appealing and opened their minds to new directions.
Youngsters like Shehwah Shah, who suffered racism and bullying, and disliked much about his three-year sentence at Lancaster Farms YOI, now consider that "going there was the best thing that could have happened to me". Why? Because this young man, whose father walked out when he was five, leaving his mother struggling to earn enough to bring up the family, with little time or energy for her children, had a personal officer who was "like a dad. He came and talked to me in my cell and he helped me see I could do something with my life. I'd been thrown out of education in prison for behaving badly, but I went back and there were two wonderful women there who gave me another chance and spent a lot of time working with me once they saw I was serious."
The result was a place at Sunderland University, from which he recently graduated with a 2:1, as he tells with heartbreaking pride.
We have the grim record of imprisoning more than 10,000 children and young people (15- to 21-year-olds) each year - more than any comparable European country. Our courts are already far too quick to incarcerate child miscreants whose crimes in no way merit it. Thus it may seem perverse to suggest that prison can be a suitable place for children and even a potentially positive experience. Certainly, it runs directly counter to the beliefs of reforming organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform (which takes me to task in the current issue of YoungMinds Magazine) and the Children's Society. The dogged and vigorous campaigning of both these organisations against the human rights abuses which undoubtedly are inflicted on children in many prisons is admirable and vital. Here we share common ground. Nor do I ignore the trenchant verdict of the former HM Inspector of Prisons Sir David Ramsbotham, who said that what he saw of children in prison was "wholly unacceptable" - the bullying, assaults, racism, degradation, isolation and fear that are all too often their daily fare (and too often ignored and condoned while child inmates are voiceless and powerless). Such abuse can only damage children and increase the chances that they will go out and harm more victims.
But the reformers take an absolutist view - that prison is never a fit place for children.Yet around 22 per cent of crimes committed by under-21s - and often enough by children in their early and mid-teens - are violent. Sometimes hideously so. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation earlier this year showed that, in a self-report sample of 14,000 pupils, nearly a quarter of 15- to 16-year-olds admitted carrying a knife over the past year and one in five had attacked someone intending to cause serious harm.
Public and victims do not want dangerous young people running loose. Those who must be taken out of circulation, the reformers argue, should always be sent to local authority secure units, where the Children Act must be observed and child development and therapeutic approaches built into the regime.
Absolutely - in an ideal world. But let's talk reality. Keeping a child in a secure unit costs £3,000 a week compared with £46,000 a year for a child in a juvenile prison unit. There are nowhere near enough secure places and it is very unlikely, in times when the Daily Mail's hard line on young offenders is popularly shared, that the taxpayer will agree to greater spending on child offenders who knife old ladies, rape girls on towpaths and commit savage murders.
So prison is what we have, and where these children will continue to be sent. We should not silence discussion around the idea that these YOIs can offer children a regime that they themselves consider positive.
What is urgently needed is to find out what can change the angry and alienated hearts and minds of children, and to build their confidence and skills so that they are better able to live a constructive life outside.
An inspiring pioneering place to study is the Owen Unit at Castington YOI in Northumberland, where the staff take children who have committed the most severe crimes. It is a low-lying building with a well-tended garden. Inside, the atmosphere is relaxed, prison officers joke with trainees (they are not called inmates) and the governor, Mick Lees, speaks fiercely of the need for humanity, respect and decency because "most of these kids have been screamed at, humiliated and treated rough and it hasn't stopped them".
But it's not a soft option: a lot is demanded of the children educationally, and Castington has just had an impressive Ofsted report. Matthew, 15, in for a nasty, violent attack and illiterate when he arrived, grins fit to break when he tells how he won a prize for a children's book he made for his sister. Donny, 17, who got life for killing a man after a drug-crazed fight, describes himself as "always a bad boy, always angry. No parent could have coped. Here they expect you to be respectful and they're good to you. I've learnt to curb my temper. They've got me to think about my victim and I wish I could go back and change what I did. I'm training to be a mechanic, learning to get up and work every day. The funny thing is, I like myself better than I ever have before, and that means I can like other people."
Huntercombe and Thorn Cross in Cheshire have also seen better-than-average results with reoffending - 15- to 21-year-olds reoffend at a rate of 80 per cent nationally. Mick Lees talks of "changing hearts and minds through showing my trainees that we are with them rather than against them, because so many have had brutality, humiliation, contempt, and the feeling that they are useless and hopeless banged into them throughout their young lives".
I am convinced that humanity and real care, delivered by staff who have chosen to work with children and are trained to understand them, can work, and make youngsters like Charmion reconsider their criminal lifestyle. Prison is not ideal. It is mad that children have to be put inside to get the "bit of parenting" that Steive Butler, another trainer at Huntercombe, talks of. It is dreadful that, for some youngsters, these prisons are the only places where they will receive education on terms that work for them, and learn that people will treat them with decency if they respond that way.
But until we, as a society, become more interested in the youngsters who go wrong, more willing to use our voices, votes and taxes to improve the lot of the most marginalised and excluded children so that crime does not seem the only way to live their lives, prison remains the place where they will go.
Keeping the idea of prison as a place where the very best practice must be observed, where conditions are monitored constantly, where our young people are given opportunities to like themselves, where in fact it can do good to children, is all-important. There should be no taboo on discussing prison as a place for kids.