Inspector says boot camp is a success

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The Independent Online
A CONTROVERSIAL "boot camp" introduced by the former home secretary Michael Howard as part of the Conservative government's "get tough" policy on youth crime was yesterday given a glowing report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

When it was set up in 1996, Thorn Cross Young Offender Institution in Cheshire became the target of criticism that it was a step in the direction of the military-style camps used to deal with young offenders in the United States.

But Sir David Ramsbotham said that the regime at Thorn Cross was far more progressive than it had originally been described and was "one of the most exciting developments in the Prison Service".

During a six-month course, prisoners aged 18-21 undertook gruelling physical challenges, learnt life skills, underwent courses to challenge their offending behaviour, received vocational training and spent the last phase of their sentence working outside the prison.

Sir David said that Thorn Cross was "no boot camp" and that the name of its high-intensity training programme (HIT) should be changed to avoid its "unfortunate" acronym.

He said: "[Thorn Cross] was an inspiring attempt to create a whole regime... young prisoners completing the course had a real opportunity to benefit from the experience of being in prison - something that is far removed from the often very destructive nature of prison life."

Of the 218 prisoners who had joined the HIT project, which makes up one of five units at the open establishment near Warrington, some 161 had completed it successfully. The report said the daily regime was "very long and physically demanding", and inmates were expected to maintain military standards of cleanliness.

Sir David said a similar unit should be opened in the south of England and the best practices from Thorn Cross should be adopted in all other prison establishments housing young people.

An even more draconian army-run Military Corrective Training Centre at Colchester, Essex, was closed last year after only a year in operation amid concern that the results did not justify the high cost of pounds 31,000 a year per inmate.

Paul Cavadino, director of policy at the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said the lesson from Thorn Cross was the opposite of that suggested by most "boot camp" supporters, showing that positive regimes produced positive results. "It is ironic that the last government chose to introduce the high-intensity training regime to the accompaniment of punitive rhetoric and references to `boot camps'," he said.

"In fact, the regime is a thoroughly constructive one with a strong emphasis on education, community work, preparation for employment and work to change offending behaviour."

The report said it was too soon to say whether the unit succeeded in cutting reoffending rates among young offenders, but it is understood that initial results have been encouraging.

The Prison Service said official figures for the cost of a place on the HIT project were not available but were likely to be included in the first evaluation of the scheme, due to be published in the summer. The average cost of a place in a young offenders' institution is around pounds 23,000 per year.