Michael Howard wants to give young criminals a taste of military justice.
It's not until a British soldier reaches his battalion that he gets an idea that the punishment on the end of any of his indisciplines during basic training has been all pretty much pretend. It might have all sounded loud and threatening, but 10 at night in front of the guardroom holding a smartly pressed article of clothing that you were picked up for at morning muster is a long way from ticking off the days in a military prison cell. If any civilian boys find themselves holed up in Colchester's Military Corrective Training Centre, or anything like it, they will be wishing they could be deported to the colonies instead.

My first day in battalion, when I was 20, just as I got off the bus in Northern Ireland, I heard "left, right, left, right, left, right" being shouted louder and faster than I'd ever heard before. Into view came a soldier, a prisoner, who was serving time in the battalion guardroom. Behind him was a lance corporal from the battalion provost staff. The provost corporal looked nasty, walked nasty, shouted nasty, and without a doubt, was nasty. His prisoner had strapped to his back a small pack that contained the regulation 30lbs of parachute regiment compact sand, a steel helmet on his head which, after hours of polishing, shone like a mirror and a concrete-filled anti-tank shell which weighed down his right shoulder. Sweat poured down his twisted-with-pain face as he tried to keep waist-high step with the almost impossible pace being set by the corporal. I shall never forget it. As he passed I can remember praying that whatever it was he had done, please dear Lord, keep such trespasses behind me.

It turned out that he had gone AWOL for a little too long. "Gaz" was his name and after his sentence was complete he reformed his ways - so much so that he was promoted. A year and a bit later he became the first soldier from our battalion to get killed at Goose Green during the Falklands War.

At battalion level, a commanding officer can sentence any of his soldiers to up to 28 days of imprisonment in the battalion guardroom. In charge of the guardroom and the wellbeing of the prisoners within it is the battalion provost sergeant. Civilian folklore has it that Satan's representatives on earth come in the form of regimental sergeant majors. But if it's real evil you're after, go to a guardroom and ask, very politely, for the man with three stripes. Provost sergeants appear at work at 8am and don't stop shouting, bullying and beasting until they clock off at 4.30.

I've seen provost sergeants - and I know you'll think I'm making it up, but it's true - standing over prisoners who were on their hands and knees sweeping parade grounds with toothbrushes and cutting lawns with nail scissors. It wasn't all bad, though, since they were allowed to put down their concrete-filled anti-tank rounds. Take my word for it, 28 days with a provost sergeant is equivalent to 28 years in a civilian prison.

I once served six months of an 18-month civilian sentence for importation of cannabis. At the time, I was in the Army, and when I heard that the military police were passing me over to the civvy police, I did rejoice throughout the whole of the barracks.

Should a soldier commit an offence warranting more than 28 days' imprisonment - for instance, a bad case of theft, or persistent periods of AWOL - he is passed on and up by the battalion colonel to the brigade brigadier. In front of the brigadier a soldier can be sentenced to up to two years' imprisonment at Colchester. Or "Colly", as it is affectionately known.

A good mate of mine got sent to "Colly" once. He reckons it's a first-class example of a short, sharp shock regime - except there didn't appear to be anything short about it to him. "They had a go at getting all tough with me," he says, "so I gave them the wild eyes and told them all about an Argie I'd bayonetted on the Falklands."

The prison is staffed by soldiers from the military provost staff. And a great bunch of guys they are as well - all volunteers from other units and all above the rank of corporal. The prisoners are divided into two groups: the ones, like my friend, who serve their time and are then discharged from the military, and the ones who serve their time and return to their units to soldier on.

A soldier who does a few months in Colchester returns to his unit as a "Super Trouper", possessing levels of drill and weapon handling that someone who was good at drill and weapon handling would be proud to possess. "Colchester old boys" make excellent guardroom provost staff.And the staff at Colchester, surprisingly enough, also have a war role. During the Falklands War, the Ascension Islands were to be used as a POW camp for captured Argentinians. The camp, had the war not have ended so quickly, would have been staffed by soldiers of the Military Provost staff. And in Colchester at the time, you could not buy a Linguaphone course in Latin American Spanish for love or money.

It seems now that the members of the military provost staff may soon have another role - that of staffing prisons which contain young civilian criminal types. In military terms, this idea elevates the charge of the light brigade into the category of sensible military manoeuvres. Though let's be honest, when we see a cut and bruised face of a granny on the front page of a tabloid after some thug's been brave enough to beat her up, the idea of a steel helmet, lots of weight and being raced around everywhere at the double seems too good for them. But that's human emotions and the law must try to be an emotionless thing.

Military prisoners, with very few exceptions, put up with the harshness of the military penal code because they were the ones, as they most certainly would see it from behind the bars of Colchester, who were stupid enough to walk into an Army careers office and sign on the dotted line. Military jailers would require such a large amount of retraining to handle young men who reply "piss off" every time they bark an order that we might just as well train up a batch of civilian prison officers in the art of being tougher. It might not be perfect but has still got to be good for a few extra votes.

Ken Lukowiak, an ex-Paratrooper, is the author of 'A Soldier's Song: True stories from the Falklands' (Mandarin, pounds 4.99).

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