'The officers screamed at us all the time - there was no education and no help getting off drugs'

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The Independent Online

Joe, 31, has been out of prison for 14 months. It is his longest stretch of freedom since the age of 16.

Joe, 31, has been out of prison for 14 months. It is his longest stretch of freedom since the age of 16.

"I look back at what has happened to me; I think I could have been a different person if the system had just helped me a little bit," he said. "But you are made to feel like a piece of shit, and you just give up and get full of hatred for the screws, for the system, for everyone."

Joe was 14 when he became another statistic in the 1980s heroin epidemic gripping his home city of Glasgow. At 16, he came before the courts for the first time and was sentenced to six months' detention on theft charges.

He was sent to a young offenders institution in Stirling. He said: "It was absolutely awful. Until then I had lived with my mum and dad. I missed them so much but we weren't given any care.

"The officers just screamed at us all the time. There was no education and no help with getting off the drugs. There was a lot of self-harm because people were going cold turkey with no support."

Six months later he was back at another YOI, again for drug-related theft. It started a pattern. "You just knew that every time you got arrested, you were going to go to prison," he says. "I was never offered rehab, or any alternatives."

He was incarcerated with other youngsters who had serious mental illnesses, drug and alcohol problems. "I could spot the people who were really disturbed and should have been in hospital, but the doctors and the screws were signing them off saying they should be in a YOI," he said.

"One night I saw a young lad in a cell just swinging from the bars. The next minute his cellmate woke up and started screaming. They cut him down, but I heard later that he'd done it again and this time he died."

The regimes were often brutal. "The screws would just slap people all the time for nothing. They would strip-search us all the time, which was so degrading."

Bullying was rife. "Some of the YOIs were basically run by gangs of cons," he said. "The screws would turn a blind eye because they wanted a quiet life."

It was only during his last stretch in an adult prison that Joe says he was given any help. He went on a detox programme and now lives in a housing support project run by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. "It's only now that I've realised that I don't want to die. I think I've got a life to live and I haven't been allowed to until now," he said.