Law: 'Boot camp' for young offenders to close

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The Independent Online
The country's only military-run 'boot camp' for young offenders is to be axed. Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, gives the background to a failed experiment in square-bashing.

It seemed the obvious solution to retired military men and Daily Telegraph readers - a dose of Army-style discipline to sort out young tearaways.

But any dreams of a return to National Service were dashed yesterday with the Government announcement that the former Essex military prison in Colchester was to close after a year.

The Young Offenders Institution for 32 criminals aged between 16 to 21 was not only expensive - pounds 31,300 a year for each inmate compared with pounds 17,300 for a normal institution - but it was not particularly effective at preventing re-offending. However, the cheaper jail at Thorn Cross YOI, Cheshire, which uses a combination of intensive education and physical fitness, will survive. The idea of using American-style "boot camps" was exported by the Tories, when Michael Howard was the home secretary, to fit in with their tough law-and-order agenda. The use of military training and punishment was widely criticised by penal experts as unsuitable when Colchester opened a year ago.

A typical day at the institution started at 6am, when the inmates had to rise and wash. Stand by beds for inspection was at 7am, physical training started at 11am and after lunch there was "drill" and more physical training. In between were a mixture of lecturers and discussions. Lights out was at 10pm. The regime was overseen by a mixture of military and Prison Service staff. Joyce Quin, the Home Office minister responsible for prisons, said in a written Commons answer yesterday: "The costs per place at Colchester, at pounds 31,300, have been nearly twice those for a typical YOI. The Colchester regime has encouraged positive change in attitudes amongst young offenders but the available evaluation has not supported the contention that it has been more effective in preventing re-offending than other initiatives."

There was also difficulties in finding enough suitable offenders. All inmates had to be physically fit, aged 18 to 21, have four to eight months left to serve, be suitable for open-prison conditions, have no previous or current sex offence, and not be a danger to the public. The centre will close at the end of March.

The institution at Thorn Cross, which costs pounds 22,700 per place, was praised for having a "more sharply focused and better integrated set of activities" and represented value for money. The "experiment" will continue, said the minister. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "The project was flawed from the outset. The criteria was so strict that hardly any offenders qualified. "The decision to close it is a welcome one on cost grounds alone."