Class Monitor: Young Offenders

The wind whips at the figures on the hillside. The young offenders have screwed-up faces and shaved heads. One or two appear angry, but most are merely cold and probably not very bright. Moving with an undignified yet funereal shuffle, they wear Day-Glo orange tabards and short tracksuit bottoms that reveal white socks. Unwisely, given the fouled terrain, they also wear white trainers. Already one young offender has placed his
in dog shit and he drags his smeared foot along the forward edge of a park bench. The others smirk at the cursing youth until he has successfully transferred the shit from his shoe to the seat.

The words "Community Payback" are stencilled in black on the back of the young offenders' tabards and they each carry an empty bin bag and a stick. The bin bags flap wildly in the wind. The sticks, with a trigger at one end and a grabbing mechanism at the other, are for collecting the rubbish the weather has torn from park bins and toddlers' hands. But though they make slow enough progress through the detritus, the young offenders rarely pause to pick something up; instead the sticks are used for jabbing and poking, for whirling around the head.

When they do halt it is to smoke and writhe at their groin, as if a plague of pubic lice had come among them. They hawk up balls of phlegm into arching parabolas.

For many young people at the wrong end of the social order, this is an all too common path. Different circumstances of birth and schooling would have left the young offenders equally dim but with a Guards commission or trotting out at the head of a First XV, adjusting their gumshields rather than their genitals. But here they are, goofing amid the turds and crocuses.

There are two chubby, bearded men alongside the young offenders. Rather than representing authority, they appear to be in an accompanying role. They seem to do nothing to moderate the behaviour, or spitting, of the young offenders, and appear equally uninterested in the uncollected litter.
How the community - represented today by those of us flogging our way over the blasted heath to the pub on the other side - is being served by this procession is hard to quantify. Perhaps our recompense lies in the pleasure of seeing 18-year-olds behave like small boys on a school outing.

If so, it is small return on the young offender misdemeanours. Misdemeanours that are unknown but can be guessed at: the minor drugs deals gone horribly wrong, the cowardly assaults, the criminal damage, the tags sprayed on bus shelters - the destructive pattern that repeats itself across their backgrounds.

Presently, they totter off. The rag-arsed line they form is sadly as organised as their lives will get, until prison beckons.

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.