Soft regime for Howard's 'boot camps'

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The Independent Online

Crime Correspondent

Criminals detained in "boot camps" - a scheme described by John Major as a tough new prison regime for young offenders - are to be allowed home six weeks early and will be awarded prizes for their work inside, according to a leaked document.

An internal Prison Service memorandum reveals that the new camps will be surprisingly liberal and emphasise education as well as exercise.

In addition, each young offender will be allocated a personal mentor to help them through the prison experience.

Many of the proposals for the first "boot camps" will horrify the Tory right-wing and embarrass the Government, which has repeatedly stressed its tough policy on young offenders. The scheme's failure would be disastrous for the Government following the experience of the electronic tagging of offenders, which is becoming a farce.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who is currently considering the scheme, announced earlier this year that the Home Office was to bring aspects of American-style "boot camps'' to Britain to provide tougher and more physically demanding regimes for offenders aged between 16 to 21.

The Home Office is expected to announce the setting up of two trials for "boot camps" within the next two months, one will be at the Thorn Cross young offenders' institution in Cheshire, the other is expected to be in Essex. If they are a success, the regime will be extended to other young offender institutions.

The Prison Service document says the Home Office will have to attract 60 volunteers to the scheme, because at present there are no laws to force offenders to take up a place.

"An incentive for going on the scheme was that prisoners get freedom for the last six weeks. Other incentives included links to employment, community service and training. Prisoners have a mentor for the whole 'at risk' period," it says.

The document adds that "a prize-giving would be held at the end [of the sentence] to which offenders could invite their families". The programme will, however, contain some tougher aspects. The volunteers, who will have to be very low-risk offenders, will spend 20 weeks on a regime that will start at 6am and end at 10pm during the week and from 7.30am to 9.30pm at the weekend.

"The whole day would be structured to challenge offending behaviour and would include physical education," says the document, which adds that there will be clear house rules and discipline.

The offenders will be split into groups of 15 and work through four five- week phases. These will include sections on team building, numeracy and literacy skills, community skills, vocational training and preparing for release.

The scheme will be very staff intensive, requiring 20 officers to oversee the 60 inmates.

The Prime Minister, wrote in June: "I set out to turn the tide on crime ... we shall shortly be opening two tough new prison regimes, drawing the best practice from American 'boot camps' to shock young offenders out of drifting into crime."

Military-model "high-impact incarceration programmes'' operate in several parts of the US, including Rikers Island, a jail in New York. Its Adolescent Reception and Detention Centre is known by inmates, who have their hair cut very short, as "the house of pain''.

Harry Fletcher, the assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, described some of the proposed education and training aspects as "quite positive". But he added: "While some aspects, such as prize-giving, are patently absurd, it is difficult to see how the scheme can be effectively evaluated and monitored."

Major's pledge...

'I set out to turn the tide on crime ... we shall shortly be opening two tough new prison regimes, drawing the best practice from American boot camps to shock young offenders out of drifting into crime.' (June 1995)

Prisoners will have their sentence cut by six weeks if they volunteer for the camps.

Prizes will be awarded to the inmates for their achievements while in jail. Families will be invited to an awards ceremony.

Inmates will be expected to undertake at least a 100-hour week, starting at 6am on most days.

Each young offender will have a personal 'mentor' to help him while at the camp.