Debate: Are cold showers and route marches the answer for our troubled adolescents?

This week the Chief Inspector of Prisons said that Thorn Cross Young Offenders Centre, the nearest we have to a boot camp, has proved a success. So is hard physical exercise the answer? Yes, says Lynette Burrows; the 'caring' approach has damaged our children. Not true, says Paul Cavadino; education and work are the only solutions

Discipline from adults protects young men from dangerous forces, says Lynette Burrows.

The authorities do not know what to do with badly behaved boys. The rot starts in primary schools where increased levels of violence and disruption are routinely reported and it continues in secondary schools, which now exclude thousands of boys every year. Neighbourhoods are terrorised and ambulances and fire engines stoned by mobs of children who, only a few short years ago, would have had a healthy fear of adult reprisals if they dared to do such things.

When our liberal intelligentsia first suggested more than a decade ago that corporal punishment was counter-productive and that schools and neighbourhoods would become more civilised places if the law forbade it, few people believed them. But adults everywhere had, probably for the first time in human history, to pretend that unruly boys could be controlled by warm smiles and the impassioned nag.

As a result, power has passed from respectable adults to the leaders of the jungle. Children and young people are not now uniquely free from fear or pain in school or neighbourhood, it is just that the people who administer it, and the reasons for which it is dished out are entirely lawless. The "respect" that is such a novel feature of the culture of school and neighbourhood is accorded to the biggest, strongest and most brutal leaders of the pack. Nobody can save individual children from being beaten and bullied. They are beyond respectable adult help.

The unhampered apprenticeship in delinquency costs the country pounds 190m a year. The end result is that once the boys are old enough to be sent to a young offenders institution, their lives are ruined, their prospects permanently blighted and they cost a further pounds 2,300 per year to keep locked up. Nice one, liberals!

Now, however, there is a tiny beacon of hope. A Chief Inspector of Prisons has praised an institution that imposed some sort of effective discipline upon young men, made them work hard, keep clean, show respect, confront their crimes. However, it is only able to impose the discipline that has proved so beneficial because the young men are prisoners. The achievement would be to oblige them to follow those same rules unencumbered by an invisible ball and chain. How much better if they'd never been allowed to get in that state in the first place; how infinitely better if national service took the place of prison.

Unfortunately for society, that possibility is still not in sight. We have given the management of unruly males almost entirely into the hands of women. Their biologically dictated techniques of inveigling, bribing, or preaching simply don't work with males. Can you imagine trying to run a decent gang along the same lines? Lynette Burrows is a teacher, broadcaster and mother to four sons and two daughters.

Knocking offenders into shape won't reduce reoffending rates, says Paul Cavadino.

There is nothing wrong with hard physical exercise or with military-style drills, parades and inspections. But nor is there any evidence that they make young offenders less likely to reoffend. On their own, they are just as likely to produce fitter delinquents who can run faster away from the scene of their crimes.

Experience has brought home this lesson time and time again. In the Eighties, amid enormous publicity, tough "short sharp shock" regimes were tried out at four detention centres. Education, vocational training and work opportunities were reduced and replaced with more physical education and drill.

They were thoroughly evaluated by Home Office researchers who concluded that the tougher regimes had no discernible effect on the reconviction rates of young people released from the centres. The experiment was one of the most clear-cut failures of modern penal policy.

Similar lessons have emerged from the United States' "boot camps". The National Institute of Justice recently sponsored research into boot camps in eight states which discovered that their reoffending rates were no better than those for similar offenders leaving other prisons or put on probation. The camps with the highest levels of reconviction - far higher than for any other form of sentence - were those in Georgia, which were entirely militaristic with no provision for education, drug treatment or counselling.

States such as New York whose camps devoted most time to rehabilitation programmes had lower reoffending figures than those where the regimes were undiluted militarism. The researchers concluded that the core components of boot camps (military atmosphere, drill, hard labour, physical training) did not reduce offending, but that education, counselling and help with drug problems did.

In short, international experience tells us two things. First, making inmates march up and down parade grounds and move from one physical task to another at the double does nothing to steer them away from crime. Secondly, the approach with the best prospect of cutting reoffending involves high- quality programmes of education, training, drug treatment and focused work to change attitudes to crime and tackle offending behaviour.

This week our admirable Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, reported in glowing terms on the high-intensity training regime at Thorn Cross Young Offenders Centre. The previous government introduced this regime to the accompaniment of punitive rhetoric and references to "boot camps". It includes tough physical training, drills, parades and inspections. But by far the largest part of prisoners' time is spent in education, vocational training, community work, preparation for employment, mentoring and work to change offending behaviour. The result is a thoroughly constructive regime. As Sir David's report says: "Any suggestion that Thorn Cross resembles media hype about 'boot camps' is very wide of the actual mark."

Reconviction results for the Thorn Cross regime are not yet available. If these show success, this will be due to the positive rehabilitation programmes that constitute the biggest part of the regime rather than to the headline-hitting small element of physically tough activities. The lesson is not that physical toughness is the answer to youth crime but that positive regimes produce positive results.

Paul Cavadino is director of policy at the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro).

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