Welcome to boot camp, boys

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The Independent Online
BLACK-and-white TV is to be one of the few luxuries of the Government's "boot camp" military prison experiment for recalcitrant young offenders, the Independent on Sunday can disclose.

Details of the new tough regime will be announced later this week, and they will show that for the first few weeks the young civilian inmates of the armed forces' Military Corrective Training Centre at Colchester will be locked in their rooms at night, without television, and subjected to a rigorous regime of physical training and drill.

If they perform adequately, and meet the standards required in room inspections, they will move on to a six to eight-week phase where they have limited access to a black-and-white television and are not locked in at night.

Finally, they will move to a regime where they can have baths as well as showers and can move around unsupervised.

The Government will announce the scheme this week in spite of widespread opposition from the armed forces. Up to 32 civilian young offenders, aged 18 to 21, will be sent to Colchester in the autumn to serve terms from six months to a year

On arrival they will be met by 11 senior non-commissioned officers, mostly from the Royal Military Police, who will introduce them to their new environment. The military instructors have not yet been selected, but they will be "severe" in appearance, with boots like mirrors and razor- sharp trouser creases. Such an appearance will intimidate erring soldiers: it remains to be seen whether it will intimidate a handful of young civilian offenders.

The young men will be housed in a separate, newly refurbished block originally designed for female prisoners.

The new civilian wing will be under the direction of Colchester's military commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel Glen Grant, but will be overseen by a civilian governor with two principal officers and eight prison officers. Their daily regime will be in the hands of an army contingent led by a sergeant major, two staff sergeants and eight sergeants, who have been trained in the methods of the civilian prison service.

The young convicts will wear basic military clothing - dungarees and denims, but without any distinguishing military insignia. They will be given a "reasonable military haircut".

The controversial scheme for "boot camps" has been widely criticised, notably by General Sir David Ramsbotham, a former adjutant general who is now inspector of prisons. Critics say putting the fittest young criminals through a military-style training scheme not only degrades the image of the armed services but also creates a highly regarded academy turning out "Napoleons of crime".

Local councillors have called for the name of the town to be dissociated from the new boot camp, while Sir David recently criticised the scheme as a sop to the "bring back national service lobby". The scheme has aroused violent hostility in the armed forces, who are trying to recruit 15,000 high-quality young men and women for difficult and complex operations like Bosnia.

Army sources are angry that some of the the best instructors are to be diverted to dealing with what they see as the detritus of the civil penal system.

Only the fittest and mentally toughest young offenders will be sent to Colchester. They will be given rigorous medicals and selected for their "physical and psychological appropriateness".

The effectiveness of the scheme will be impossible to judge until the first offenders have been released and given a chance to reoffend. The Government will cite the services' rates for reoffending as evidence that the scheme will work.

The young convicts will imbibe any military ethos from their instructors, not from the military offenders at Colchester, from whom they will be kept separate.

Although the scheme is not intended to help fill the 15,000 vacancies the forces have in the next year, those who have not committed serious offences will be given sympathetic consideration if they apply to join the forces when they have completed their sentences.