An independent inspection by researchers from Queen's University, Belfast, came to the conclusion that children at the Lisnevin Training School 'came in as criminals with low self-esteem and went out as criminals with high self-esteem'.
Lisnevin, County Down, has been besieged by visitors from the Home Office ever since Kenneth Clarke announced, when he was Home Secretary, that he wanted to incarcerate 12 to 15-year-olds in 'secure training institutions'. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, told the Conservative Party Conference last week: 'We must pass the legislation, build these centres and take these thugs off the streets.'
At present the youngest offenders cannot be jailed in England and Wales. But in Northern Ireland up to 55 violent and disturbed boys aged 10 to 17 can be sent by the courts to Lisnevin. One minister, two Home Office under-secretaries and the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee have visited the secure unit since Mr Clarke's announcement, to see how similar institutions could work in England and Wales.
Senior staff at the centre implicitly reject the Government's justification for building juvenile prisons.
Mr Howard told the Conservative delegates that they were necessary because at the moment magistrates were powerless to deal with 'young hooligans' who 'cocked a snook at authority'.
But workers at Lisnevin said last week that far from being arrogant thugs, many of the children serving sentences of six months were ill. One third had been physically or sexually abused, and many more were severely disturbed.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said the experience of Northern Ireland showed that as soon as places in a juvenile jail were available, the courts would fill them. 'Despite the best efforts of staff, the appallingly high reconviction rate in Northern Ireland should tell Michael Howard that his borstals in England won't work,' he said.
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