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17 July 2008

Time for a change

Can ex-offenders teach teenage boys to reject a life of crime? When David Blunkett went to prison fo

By David Blunkett

As a former home secretary, I am probably not an obvious candidate to participate in a “reality” television series. But I have a long-standing interest in how we can best work with young people and their families to show them the true consequences of criminality.

So, when approached by channel Five with an idea for filming an experiment aimed at changing the self-belief, self-esteem and behaviour of those who had embarked on a downward path, I agreed to look carefully at becoming involved.

Banged Up (as the programme has been called) intended to take ten teenage boys who had become involved in crime and put them in a “prison” for ten days with reformed ex-offenders. I would be the head of their parole board. It was clear that there was a real objective to bring together those who might make a difference, look at what worked and what didn’t, to learn the lessons and perhaps to be able to apply them, in very different circumstances, across the work of the Youth Justice Board and the National Offender Management Service.

One invaluable benefit from having agreed to do the programme has been the proximity to the young men involved and the renewed insight it has given me into youth culture. Many of the young men shared an interest in, and a cultural affinity with, a genre of music called “grime”. Let me confess that to me the word meant only my mother’s concern to scrub me clean at the age of four! But music, expression and the communication of anger and pent-up frustration go together with young men uncertain of their own masculinity and what the future holds. They came into the prison with a bravado that one would expect and ready for a laugh. They were, after all, going to be on television.

Banged Up could never, of course, replicate the true reality of prison. The young people involved in this experiment, and their parents, were there on a voluntary basis. It was possible for them to leave. But, that aside, we were as authentic as we could be. The film was shot in a former prison in Scarborough that was recommissioned for the production. Its cells were standard 12ft x 8ft with no toilet, no washing facilities and no televisions. They contained the bare essentials: two bunks with 1860 horsehair mattresses, two chairs and a table, and one large steel door with the lock on the outside.

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As home secretary, I visited a number of in stitutions and know that the atmosphere of a prison is something that has to be experienced to be believed. It took me days to get the prison smell out of my nostrils. The impact on the self-worth of an individual, never mind their health, is hard to explain to those who have not been inside one. Only prison officers who have become used to such an environment could think prison was a place you would want to remain in.

Banged Up offered the boys a crucial difference from normal custody: their cellmates. Sharing a cell in even the most modern facilities involves the chance of malign influences, the working out of personality disorders, or what we used to call the “university of crime”. Our youngsters shared their cells with reformed prisoners; men prepared to spend time telling them the truth about crime and prison and willing to act as long-term mentors; men like Bob Croxton. Croxton had served nine years in prison. He is a big, hard man yet admitted to the audience at a seminar we gave that he’d had to pluck up all his courage to re-enter a prison – even this one, which he could leave at any time. But he wanted to help stop young people making the mistakes he made.

Equally determined to help was David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, who took the role of governor. Trained prison officers ran the “prison” and an expert in forensic mental health, Jack Kennedy, oversaw care of the young people.

The parole board included Funke Baffour, a clinical psychologist, Martin Glynn, a criminologist who has worked with young people, and myself. Later we transformed ourselves into the board for final assessment for release and future support. Glynn has extraordinarily good links into youth culture and put together programmes for the young men – including restorative justice programmes for three of them.

We tried to show viewers the challenges the young people and their families had faced and the equal challenge of turning round behaviour and avoiding criminality. In other words, how do you stop young people moving from simple misbehaviour to a life of crime?

The personal stories of the young people and their relationships tell their own tale. Intervention at an early phase (including help for families) is vital. The Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, wisely agreed to expand Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and we can use this to provide help for misbehaviour at a very early stage when it might make the most difference. Supportive health services should not mean having to diagnose youngsters as having mental health problems.

Young people need hope, a sense of well-being and real self-confidence, as opposed to superficial belligerence. They also need to believe that the future can be better than the present. Education, tailored to the young person rather than the other way round, the opportunity for progress or training and the chance of a job are all crucial.

A helping hand – not necessarily from a family member – at times of transition is also important. We know that role models matter, but even where the family influence is positive, family relationships can go wrong; having someone else to turn to who cares can make all the difference.

As home secretary, I met young people who positively wanted the framework of a secure training centre or youth-offending institution precisely because it offered stability and safety. It allowed them to avoid the vulnerability they felt outside. The challenge is to provide young people with such a framework for life and, in some cases, somewhere to escape from the circumstances driving their dysfunctional behaviour, and to do it before they need to be locked up.

A second chance

Banged Up presents young people with all their vulnerability and allows us to see, even in a ten-day period, what troubles them, what issues have particular resonance and what options exist (or can be created) for turning their lives around.

Ex-con Bob Croxton turned his life around – he is now chairman of the Criminal Information Bureau, an organisation dedicated to crime prevention, crime awareness and crime intervention. Bob gave a job to Danny, one of our youngsters. Danny had been running wild on the streets but, when asked what he wanted in life, answered simply “a home, a job and a girlfriend”.

Another of the young men, Justin, whose mother was working hard to break him away from a peer group that seemed bent on dragging him into a world of violence and drugs, arrived at Scarborough saying: “I don’t want to go to prison because I’ll miss seeing all my mates and being allowed to do what I want. I reckon prison would be hard, but if you do get sent down, you’ve got to put up with that – last it out.”

Now, though, he is set to enter the army.

It would be good to think that others in a similar position, who might be disqualified from following his example by a criminal record, could also be given a second chance.

We are never going to return to conscription, but the structure, discipline and training it offered gave some young men a chance to turn their lives around. Can we do the same for others in a different era of rapid change and greater social and cultural uncertainties?

Being in a prison cell and experiencing prison life, albeit briefly, might have an impact. But that is not the main conclusion I drew from this experiment. What I have found invaluable is the chance to look at the combination of circumstances that lead to misbehaviour, the needs of young people and the therapies that might work.

I am not holding my breath that the lessons from the channel Five series will be immediately embraced. But I do hope we will have made people think, increased awareness and inspired a determination to help young people out of their malaise before it is too late.

“Banged Up” is on channel Five on Monday 21 July at 9pm and concludes on Monday 28 July.

The Rt Hon David Blunkett is MP for Sheffield Brightside

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