Prisoner's inside story helps children stay on the outside

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The Independent Online
A prisoner serving a life sentence for the murder of a young woman in a bank raid was allowed out of jail yesterday to talk to schoolchildren. The teenagers told Ian Burrell that the experience had given them a more realistic view of life inside.

He did not look like a man who had been sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in jail. Diminutive, neat and bespectacled, Mick Hart arrived at the Logan Hall in central London in a Peugeot saloon and wearing his brother- in-law's grey suit.

If it was not for the presence of an accompanying uniformed prison officer you would never have guessed he was serving a life sentence for a bungled bank robbery in which a young woman died from shotgun wounds.

Certainly the teenagers who came from all over the south of England to hear his account of life behind bars could not tell him apart from other speakers at an event called "The Offenders", billed as a conference for youth on crime and punishment.

When asked to pick out the serving prisoner from the guest panel, the audience of 1,000 teenagers overwhelmingly opted for a social studies lecturer from the University of Central England.

But Hart, who had been released for the day from Coldingley prison in Surrey, left them in little doubt of his authenticity with a chilling description of a prison career spanning two decades. "Prison is a very violent place. I would describe it as a concrete jungle," he warned.

Hart described how a fellow inmate had committed suicide outside his cell. "He cut his throat, slashed his wrists and left a knife hanging out of his stomach."

Then Hart, 59, explained his own transformation from a problem prisoner to a crime fighter, becoming a Christian while stripped and locked in the strong box - a cell within a cell on the prison segregation unit.

Since then he has set up a project involving other inmates who have devised a play and video on the brutality of life in jail. Youngsters thought to be at risk of following criminal paths have visited the prison to see productions, although many of yesterday's audience are expected to go to university.

But the New Bridge charity, which organised the conference, feels it is important that such youngsters have a better understanding of the realities of the criminal justice system.

Helen Jay, 15, from Warden Park school in Cuckfield, West Sussex, was impressed. "It's like a real experience. Better than people just giving you statistics that do not mean anything. It's a lot more personal and real and hits you a lot harder."

Youngsters gathered round the prisoner during the coffee-break to question him.

"You see that sort of policeman over there, is he guarding you?" asked one boy.

The lag replied: "I'm in the 21st year of a 25-year sentence. It would be a bit pointless running away now."

Perplexed, the lad persisted: "But wouldn't you ever try and escape?" Patiently Hart, who has three children, said: "If I was to go missing now I would be the cause of so many problems for my children and friends. At the moment I have got a good chance of getting out fairly soon."

Anne Wellham, a teacher at The Green School, Isleworth, Middlesex, said that her pupils had been initially fearful when told that a serving prisoner was in their midst. "They felt threatened because they had this very stereotypical view of a prisoner. But when they heard him speak they saw he was a human being."

The governor of Coldingley, John Smith, also attended the conference. "Youngsters don't listen to social workers, teachers, probation officers or parents," he said. "They are much more prepared to talk to someone like Mick who has been there and done it."

After 21 years inside, Hart, a west Londoner, admitted he had been taken aback by the speed of Nineties life. But he is negotiating with police to be allowed to continue his crime prevention work after his release in four years' time.