First `boot camp' to kick off without hardline regime

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The country's first American-style boot camp, which is supposed to knock young offenders into shape, will have no walls, gates or locked doors, it emerged yesterday.

Sixty low-risk young offenders will be hand-picked for the 16-hour intensive day of drill, education, training and work - but they will be able to opt out if they wish.

Detailed plans for the experimental camp in Warrington, Cheshire, released yesterday, represent a climbdown by the Government in the face of warnings that traditional barrack room-style boot camps do not work. The emphasis is on rehabilitation rather than the punitive "shock" treatment promised by John Major.

Although the daily regime for the 18 to 21-year-olds will be a long one, starting at 6am with 40 minutes drill and inspection and ending with lights out at 10pm - the bulk of the day is spent on education, vocational training and confronting offending behaviour. It is broken up by only one hour's physical exercise in the afternoon.

Classes will cover skills to cope with life on the outside; completing a log book of what they have achieved; and an hour working for charity.

The last five weeks of the 25-week programme involve the offender working and living in the community - only returning to the institution at weekends.

Those last few weeks provide the only real incentive for young offenders to undergo the rigours of camp. In the United States, offenders agreeing to attend boot camps usually win a reduction in sentence.

Nevertheless, Derek Lewis, director general of the Prison Service, was confident few picked for the camp, due to open next summer at Thorn Cross young offender institute, would refuse. Those passing through the camp will cost the taxpayer pounds 14,000 as compared to pounds 8,500 for other young offenders - the bulk of the extra funds covering extra staffing costs for the long day.

Unveiling the plans, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, stressed the austerity of the camp but was careful not to promise this was the solution to tackling crime. "This pilot scheme will enable us to judge the extent to which this combination of deterrents, discipline and training will help make those subjected to it into decent law-abiding citizens," he said.

Described by the Penal Affairs Consortium, an alliance of 26 organisations, as an "an odd mixture of the harsh and the helpful", the plans met with an equally mixed response.

Mary Honeyball, general secretary of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, said: "Surprisingly, beneath the headlines, this initiative has some of the hallmarks of a rather positive development within the prison system."

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, said setting up of such a camp amounted to an admission of failure to tackle crime. He said all jails should concentrate on education, training and behaviour in order to cut the male re-offending rate to below 70 percent.