Prison doesn't have to be a black hole

We are all more likely to be victims of crime because prisoners are leaving custody illiterate and unskilled

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Stevie, a stocky but hollow-cheeked 20-year-old lad serving 18 months in Feltham Young Offenders' Institution for burglary, is talking about his kids. "My first two are in Amsterdam. I never see them. But I see my other one every week, and I'm going to be close to the two on the way." Twins? "No. My girl's having a baby in three months, and her cousin is having my baby a few months later too." He grins. He has been banged up 20 times since he was 13. Rat-boy, feral child, a mini-Kray of the council estates: fill in your own dehumanising cliché, Stevie matches them all.

Stevie, a stocky but hollow-cheeked 20-year-old lad serving 18 months in Feltham Young Offenders' Institution for burglary, is talking about his kids. "My first two are in Amsterdam. I never see them. But I see my other one every week, and I'm going to be close to the two on the way." Twins? "No. My girl's having a baby in three months, and her cousin is having my baby a few months later too." He grins. He has been banged up 20 times since he was 13. Rat-boy, feral child, a mini-Kray of the council estates: fill in your own dehumanising cliché, Stevie matches them all.

Stevie has thick encrusted scars running up both his arms. "Yeah, I started cutting myself when I first got banged up," he says quickly. "I don't know why. I would just cut and cut. Everything was doing my head in. My girl used to get freaked out because she would try to disinfect the wound - I never went to the doctor - and she would be touching the bone."

He dropped out of school when he was seven. He was expelled, but he can't remember what for. He never found his way back. "I started doing silly things. My dad was in cram [prison], and I smoked crack for the first time when I was 10. That's when it went totally mental," he says. The staff in Feltham say it's a familiar story. Almost all the lads here have a similar background. A third come to prison straight from care homes.

So is this just another feel-bad tale of the British underclass, a lament for the 10,000 Stevies across the land? No; there's an unexpected coda to this story. Three years ago, Stevie's current home, Feltham, the south London remand centre holding 650 young offenders, was the absolute nadir of the British prison system. After the long death march of several young men to their suicides in dank cells - and an epidemic of men slashing their own flesh to mush - Feltham tanked on 21 March 2000. A racist psychopath called Robert Stewart was placed in a cell with Zahid Mubarek, a troubled, drug-addicted Asian thief. Stewart beat him to death with a table leg.

Since the scandal, Feltham has been inundated with hard cash and a determination on the part of politicians to turn it around. It is therefore a rare - and critical - exception to the tide of failure in British prison policy.

For more than a decade, under both Tory and Labour governments, the overall prison budget has been slashed, even while the number of prisoners has grown like yeast. The effect has been well documented and scandalous: over-crowded prisons are providing very limited education and resettlement services. We are all more likely to be victims of crime because prisoners are too often leaving custody illiterate, unskilled and homeless (80 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds walk out the gates to "no fixed abode").

But Feltham shows that another criminal justice system is possible. The turnaround in the juvenile wing - which has had the bulk of the investment - has been drastic. There hasn't been a suicide here for three years. The self-harm bacillus is now under control and falling rapidly. There's a flash new detox unit, so that kids aren't going cold turkey alone and unhelped in their cells. The education centre was given a 100 per cent excellence rating by Ofsted inspectors last year. The prison inspectorate raved about the changes in its latest report.

Stevie explains the practical effect of all this. "I learned how to read here. They've given me lots of attention. They train me every day. I know it isn't a good thing to say that prison's good but this prison has done me good. Everywhere else I've been there's been no education - or what they had was shit - and basically no help with drugs neither."

I heard similar stories about Feltham from most of the young men I spoke to, all selected randomly to ensure I wasn't being shown the most impressive individuals. Yet I could almost hear right-wingers splutter when I saw that some of the offenders are given PlayStations in their cells if they excel at education and good behaviour. Why lavish resources on offenders? What about the victims? This right-wing ranting is easily slapped down. There is no contradiction between spending money on offenders and spending money on victims. All the academic research shows that if you spend money on offenders, there will be fewer victims, dummy.

The real choice in law and order isn't tough vs soft - who wants to be soft on rapists, muggers and killers? - but smart vs dumb. The "tough" approach to Stevie would be to slam him into a dark, damp cell, give him no drug treatment and no lessons, provide no incentive for him to learn how to behave well and structure his time, and then push him out at the end of it on to the streets, alienated and homeless. This is what happens in most American prisons.

Sure, it's tough; it is also dumb. He would be far more likely to reoffend. The idea that abused kids from violent homes (or no home at all) cutting their own bodies to bits are in need of even more hammering is not just stone-hearted. It creates more victims in the long term. Yet thanks to the neglect of prison reform by all parties, most of Britain's jails are closer to the failed American model than to the crime-cutting centres of rehabilitation we desperately need.

Tony Blair, even when his thoughts are benign, has not made prison reform a priority. Once offenders enter the Black Hole of Calcutta that is our penal system, the current Government - terrified of idiotic headlines claiming that prisoners are all given plasma-screen televisions - does little for them. Does every prison have to wait for a neo-Nazi to batter an Asian to death in one of its cells for the Government to open the funding and reform flood-gates?

Penal reform should be the dream subject for a Labour Home Secretary. Here are some of the poorest, most excluded people in Britain - and the Government has the power to transform their lives. Yet Feltham's rejuvenation remains only a small exception; a shaft of light in the penal darkness. Even there, the treatment of under-18s is far better than for 18 to 21-year-olds, who are housed in a separate, underfunded wing and suffer far more limited access to education.

Feltham's juvenile wing shows what a large increase in investment could achieve across the British penal system. Every prisoner in Britain, not just young offenders, should be equipped with literacy and numeracy skills, and set up with a home and a job following their release. Most Labour politicians agree, but it takes hard cash to get there - and far from putting in the cash, they are actually whittling existing funds down.

If money and good management can turn around Feltham, they can turn around anywhere. A brave government would shift spending away from shallow "eye-catching initiatives" with no proven track-record (random drug-testing in schools, "bobbies on the beat", punishing the parents of truants) to these low-key but proven techniques.

Stevie asks: "Y'know, in some of the nicks I've been in, it's like they want you to go out and keep on being a criminal. They don't teach you nothing. They don't help you with getting a job or a flat or nothing. Why can't every nick help you get yourself sorted out? Don't they want us to go straight?"

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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