Ex-convict's fight against crime founders: A project showing children the horrors of prison life may end because a request for an pounds 8,000 grant has been refused. Steve Boggan reports

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The Independent Online
A pioneering anti-crime scheme hailed as a success by teachers, police and probation officers will be scrapped this week because the Home Office has turned down a request for pounds 8,000 funding.

George Martin, a former convict with more than 250 crimes behind him, will pack up his bags on Friday and abandon his task of describing the horrors of prison to 100,000 children in more than 250 Merseyside schools.

His 'Anti-Crime Encounter Initiative' was put together for pounds 17,000 with the help of Merseyside Probation Service and the Merseycare Trust, a charity closely associated with it. Mr Martin's idea, of warning children of the consequences of a life of crime, captured the imagination of the whole community, resulting in a flood of invitations to speak at local schools and prompting two banks and an insurance company to put up sponsorship money.

By March of this year, when Mr Martin's proposals earned him an early prison release on probation, the private sector had put up more than half the money needed. The Merseycare Trust applied to the Home Office for the remaining pounds 8,000 on Mr Martin's behalf, but it has been turned down.

'It's absolutely crazy,' Mr Martin said yesterday. 'It costs pounds 75,000 a year to keep a child in a secure unit, and that gets no results. For just pounds 17,000 we can get to 100,000 children in 250 schools and warn them to steer clear of crime. I know it works because of the response we get from the kids.

'I was released early so I could do this, but now I'm going to have to sign on. Me going on the dole will cost more than the pounds 8,000 we need.'

Mr Martin's pounds 12,226 wages were to have come out of the pounds 17,000. Telephone bills, administration charges and travelling expenses would be covered by the rest. The Home Office's refusal means the scheme lacks funds to complete the financial year, although Kirsten Sproul-Cran, administrator of the Merseyside Probation Service, said it could survive on less than pounds 8,000.

'The initiative needs pounds 5,000 by Friday or it will have to close, and that would be tragic,' she said. 'Mr Martin's work has had a profound effect on the children he has spoken to. It is impossible to evaluate the results of his contact with young people because this is crime prevention, but he receives hundreds of letters from children who say they never want to go to prison.'

During Mr Martin's two-hour lectures, children are shown slides of disgusting prison conditions; some are told to sit on a typical prison 'piss-pot'; they are given stark descriptions of the terrors of jail violence.

Equally as important, Mr Martin, 34, gives them details of the effect that his 17 1/2-year criminal career and nine jail sentences had on his wife and their four children. He answers questions about his convictions for theft, fraud, grievous bodily harm, wounding, burglary and so on. He shows them prison clothing - even sackcloth underwear that may have been worn by 400 criminals.

And he emphasises the effects of crime on victims. By the end of the talk, probation officers say, the children are gently, but profoundly, impressed.

'Locking people up in prison is no use - I know because I reoffended,' Mr Martin said. 'Here, we have the chance to stop kids going inside before they get into the prison cycle, but we're passing it up for a few thousand pounds.'

Inspector Margaret Ayres, a youth and community officer for Merseyside police, which supports Mr Martin, was also disappointed. 'I would be very sad if he had to stop his work,' she said last night.

But the Home Office was unrepentant. 'There is no mechanism for providing funds for this kind of project,' a spokesman said. He added that a 'Safer Cities' fund, to which Merseycare had applied, operated in limited areas only. Liverpool was not one of them.

(Photograph omitted)