Home Affairs Correspondent
Young offenders could be detained in "glasshouses" - the military's corrective training centres - under controversial proposals by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary. Cabinet correspondence reveals that the Minister is determined to introduce real "boot camps", run by the armed forces, to deal with persistent young criminals.
He has already obtained the backing of Michael Portillo, the Defence Minister. However, Mr Portillo points out in the correspondence that the country's only "glasshouse" at Colchester is based on the application of military law, in other words a far tougher regime than in any civilian jail.
Further, he warns that the MoD was "not prepared to do anything which would detract from or dilute the present very high standards and military ethos which are the cornerstones of its success".
Earlier this month, Mr Howard was embarrassed by leaked documents which showed that proposals for a privately run "boot camp" at Thorn Cross, Cheshire, was not offering the tough and rigorous discipline he had promised last year.
The documents indicated that criminals detained in "boot camps" - a scheme described as a tough new prison regime for young offenders - were to be allowed home six weeks early and would be awarded prizes for their work inside.
The military "glasshouse" at Colchester, which can hold up to 210 servicemen and women who have offended against military law runs a relentless 6am to 8pm regime based on punishment, drill, physical exercise and rifle practice. It is staffed by servicemen and women of the rank of sergeant and above.
Junior Home Office minister, Anne Widdecombe, met Nicholas Soames, representing the MoD, on 25 July to see if there were any legal obstacles to overcome before detailed planning could take place. The following day, officials met to plan a new joint direction and, according to the correspondence, considerable progress was made. However, in his letter to Mr Howard, Mr Portillo said the military still had some reservations. "Not unexpectedly there appear to be more limitations on our side than yours," he wrote.
A working group has now been set up to examine the scheme in detail and Home Office officials have visited Colchester to assess its suitability for young offenders.
Last night, Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers said: "Corrective military training will no doubt be enormously popular with the Conservative Party faithful. But military offenders are volunteers and recruits while civilian offenders will be unwilling conscripts. The scheme is bound to end in tears."
The Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) at Colchester is considered to be the last of the traditional "glasshouses", a British Army slang term for military prison or guardroom deriving from the detention barracks at North Camp, Aldershot, which were built in 1925 with a glass roof.
It is synonymous among Army regulars with a regime of severe punishment which awaits those who misbehave while off-duty and are waiting to return to their regiments as well as those being punished before being dishonourably discharged.
According to those who have seen inside the establishment, where 91 inmates are currently being held, everything is done "at the double".
The Colchester camp is a single-storey, red-brick building built around a grass courtyard with a parade ground. Two wings are for male detainees while the third houses a small number of women.
At present, offenders can expect to be there for between six months and two years for offences which include violence and drugs.