Young offenders to go to `glasshouse'

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The Independent Online
The dreaded "glasshouse" Military Prison at Colchester will become home to up to 32 civilian young offenders from this autumn, the Government confirmed yesterday.

Ann Widdecombe, Minister of State for the Home Office, said civilian offenders would live separately from the military inmates of the Military Corrective Training Centre and would not be subject to military law. She said the establishment of a civilian wing at Colchester was a pilot scheme to complement the high-intensity young-offenders' programme at Thorn Cross announced in September.

The military-style regime will begin with two-and-a-half hours of physical training a day and a similar amount of drill. But it will be adjusted because the 18- to 21-year-old civilians are not expected to be as fit as the military inmates. Even so it will be hard. Even basic privileges like watching a black-and-white television or listening to a radio will be have to be earned.

Compared with many civilian prisons Colchester is neat, clean and well- appointed; the cream corridors and polished floors are clean enough to eat from.

Military detainees, sent here for crimes from credit card fraud to grievous bodily harm live eight to a room. The civilians, who will live in the separate "F" block, originally built for women, will live four to a room.

At first the rooms are inspected twice a day with cutlery laid two centimetres apart and beds made so neatly you could spin a coin on the top sheet, and every other item in its appointed place. Points can be given or withdrawn. Thirteen points will gain a recommendation and six recommendations permit an individual to progress to the next phase.

Only when detainees have progressed to phase three are they allowed the luxury of curtains. We were shown around by the best inmates, who answered our questions but refused to give their names.

The regime for the civilian offenders will be based on that for the service men and women who are to be discharged into civilian life. Yesterday some of those, marked by green shoulder flashes were working on the farm - a popular option, though hard work. Some of them were artificially inseminating pigs. "Lots of animals come into season in one week so you don't want to work your boar too hard", explained Staff Sergeant Michael Baron. "They learn a wide range of animal husbandry skills here", he said. The regime has been so successful that one ex-inmate, a royal marine, is now running his own farm in South Africa.

The standard of drill on the square would not disgrace Sandhurst. The drill instructors marking distance with pace sticks, like pairs of giant dividers, and red sashes, look just like those training future officers. The civilian young offenders will do drill, but not, perhaps to such a high standard.

"Enough to get them to move from A to B smartly round the establishment", said Sergeant Major Steve Gregory, the senior warrant officer at Colchester.

Sergeant Major Mark Melton, the gym instructor, said he hoped to get the civilian offenders a community sports' leaders award. Whenever possible the training aims to bring offenders a recognised civilian qualification or at least the components of one - National vocational qualifications, for example.

Nicholas Soames, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said yesterday that he was one of the `godfathers' of the pilot scheme at Colchester and he had been so impressed by the regime that he had recommended the idea to Home Secretary Michael Howard of putting civilian offenders there.

Ann Widdecombe said she hoped the results would lead to a reduction in reoffending rates - currently 70 per cent in civilian Young Offenders Institutions. The equivalent at Colchester is 7 per cent.

However, it remains to be seen whether civilian young offenders react in the same way as trained soldiers.