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21 January 2002

The boredom and the anger

Some want to smash everything, others gnaw through their own flesh but, at this young offenders' ins

By Johann Hari

David clears away the clutter from his chair and offers me a seat. His room is filled with the personalised stuff you would find in any university student’s room: magazines, posters, family pics, old coffee cups. He is sitting on his bed next to Steve, who is tall, black and muscular.

David, who is pale and looks tired, turns down the volume on the TV. We chat about daytime television (we agree that it has never really recovered from the loss of Richard and Judy), and it’s like chatting to anyone else my age: the usual upbeat pop-culture gibberish that everyone in their early twenties spouts in order to bond with people they’ve only just met. Not until David refers to how he is serving a life sentence for murder would anybody reading a transcript of our homely scene realise where I am.

Aylesbury Young Offenders’ Institute houses the 348 most violent and disturbed young criminals aged between 18 and 21 in Britain. Visually, the building is confusing. Its imposing Victorian exterior gives way to modern steel interiors, incongruously offset by long lines of bright green and red tinsel. More than 50 of its inmates are serving life sentences here before moving on to adult prisons. Before I enter, I am warned that several of them have committed crimes that “would make your stomach turn”, and am told not to ask them what their offences were.

The public’s perception of young offenders’ institutions is shaped by films such as Alan Parker’s Scum: all rape and wrist- slitting. Is that the way life is for people like David and Steve?

Aylesbury contains the seeds of a new, modern prison service that could banish this Victorian model once and for all. Work in British prisons has too often involved sewing mailbags. But not for these lads in Aylesbury, where Toyota, without government funding, has built a very sophisticated car mechanics workshop. At any given time, this provides 24 prisoners with skills that are transferable to the outside world. The company is committed to funding the workshop for the next 20 years. “It kind of gives you hope,” Steve explains. “It makes you realise you can learn something, you know?” Many students on the course have to be taught how to read and write before they begin. One former prisoner, released last year, has written to the institute to explain that he is now employed full-time by Toyota, and that the mechanics course transformed his life.

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This particular initiative came not from Whitehall, but from an entrepreneurial figure within the prison who had the wherewithal to raise the funding. This is a model example of the social entrepreneurship that this magazine aims to support with the annual New Statesman-Centrica Upstarts Awards. It chimes neatly with the government’s approach, too: it harnesses private resources for the public good.

The example of Aylesbury’s Toyota workshop suggests that government funding for this kind of project would be an investment that paid for itself many times over. “We would love to have workshops all over the prison. We would love to be educating the lads in a whole range of crafts,” one prison officer explains. “But we don’t have the manpower. We don’t have the resources.”

But when prisoners step out of the shiny Toyota workshop, do they confront the stereotypical brutal images of life in a young offenders’ institution that colour outsiders’ perceptions of such places? While the prison guard was chatting outside the cell, the lads I spoke to (about ten in all, selected randomly according to who was hanging around in the corridor) had an opportunity, off the record, to tell me if the “screws” were screwing them up. They all said that it wasn’t the case. Some screws were nicer than others; some were “good blokes”, others “arseholes”, but none was corrupt or violent. The people who work in the prison, such as Neil Beales, a principal officer, were plainly decent and straight-talking, even (I was told by inmates) away from the prying eyes of the media.

These days, it is rare for young offenders to have to share a cell. This issue has been emphasised by high-profile cases such as the recent murder in Feltham of an Asian prisoner by his rabidly racist cellmate. In fact, a few prisoners dislike being alone and would prefer to share, and research suggests that this preference has a constructive basis: rates of suicide and self-harm are considerably higher in lone cells. One prisoner told me: “You ain’t going to hang yourself if there’s somebody standing next to you saying, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ It’s like a support, you know, a mate.” Thorn Cross Young Offenders’ Institute, near Warrington, has decided to increase its share of two-person cells for that very reason.

There is, however, some threat from fellow prisoners. All prisons have hierarchies and vicious fights to be “top dogs”, and Aylesbury is no exception. “We all know who’s in charge and who’s a sad bastard,” I’m told. “Everyone knows their place.” But the prison has a tough anti-bullying strategy. Beales explains that “where we see gangs forming, we very quickly split them up. We just transfer them to different parts of the prison and make sure they don’t have classes together. The key is not to let groups like that settle, and keep moving them, or they form into packs.”

Beales admits that self-harm is a major issue: “I’ve seen some kids so self-harming that they bite through their own arm to find a vein to rip at. I’ve seen lads who’ve literally gnawed through the cartilage and ligaments and flesh of their own arm.” Another prisoner sliced his own body so persistently that, in one week alone, he had to have 13 pints of blood pumped into him.

Many of the young men in Aylesbury have never learnt any coping mechanisms to deal with crises, or even with everyday life. The only reaction they know to stress or anger or self-disgust is cutting themselves. Aylesbury does have alarmingly high self-harming rates, but these are deceptive. A small number of dedicated and repeated self-harmers have, in the past, sent the statistics through the roof. The statistics are now moving in the right direction.

A number of strategies have helped. Suicidal prisoners are no longer moved to the healthcare unit, because that stigmatises them. There is now an emphasis on treating them in their own wing, surrounded by their friends. A full-time prisoner works on self-harm prevention, and he is assisted by Andy, one of the institute’s most impressive and mature prisoners. Talking to fellow prisoners is often far more helpful than talking to professionals. For this reason, there is now an institutionalised “listeners” service, where a suicidal prisoner can speak at any time to Andy or a number of other inmates who have been trained by the Samaritans. They can be moved to a special suite and talk all night if necessary.

For all these improvements, however, there are several other desperate needs that cannot be addressed because of underfunding. Charlotte Day of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who specialises in young offenders, says that 18- to 21-year-olds “get the worst deal of anybody within the prison estate”. Tight Home Office targets for the treatment of under-18s have caused funding to be concentrated on them; most are now sent to expensive new secure training centres. Young offenders’ institutions on “split sites” – institutions that house both juveniles ( aged 15 to 17) and 18- to 21-year-olds – suffer most, because the two categories can no longer mix. At sites such as Brinsford and Feltham, 18- to 21-year-olds have been denied access even to basic facilities.

Another consequence of underfunding is that staff levels are very low at the moment. In Aylesbury, prisoners get one hour out of their cells per day at weekends. Those in “bang up” (that is, the prisoners who don’t have jobs or attend courses, which was the case with three of the ten youths I spoke to) get just an hour on weekdays, too. “It drives you mental,” Steve explains. “The boredom, the anger – you just can’t fucking stand it. You want to smash every fucking thing.”

Whereas in Feltham, prisoners get a “sosh” (association, where they can hang out and talk to each other) three times a day, in Aylesbury this is restricted to once a day. This gives inmates only an hour in which to shower, play pool, chat and relax, before they are banged up alone again. It doesn’t take a whole Richard and Judy phone-in to figure out that this is a recipe for producing angry, bitter men.

Aylesbury is an unbearable microcosm of Britain’s public services: run by decent, well- intentioned public servants, filled with people screaming out for help, but starved of the funding it needs. This could be a buzzing centre for transforming the lives of some of the poorest, most dispossessed people in our society. Instead, it is, as David told me as I left his cell, “a place that could do a lot of good, if we weren’t all just sitting around waiting all the time. You know?”

Some names in this article have been changed

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