When to punish is to betray

'Lord Woolf's decision was absolutely reasonable. After all, 90 per cent of children held in prison reoffend when they leave'

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Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger, may never go to prison now. Yesterday's decision by Lord Woolf to reduce their tariff to eight years means that their release could be pretty well imminent. Since their time in custody has been spent in local authority secure units they never have, and probably never will, experience the conditions of the average adult prison or average young offenders' institution.

Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger, may never go to prison now. Yesterday's decision by Lord Woolf to reduce their tariff to eight years means that their release could be pretty well imminent. Since their time in custody has been spent in local authority secure units they never have, and probably never will, experience the conditions of the average adult prison or average young offenders' institution.

Clearly, it was the knowledge of the effects that these institutions have on young people that impelled Lord Woolf to argue that it would be wrong to "waste the good work" done by Venables and Thompson and their carers up to now by forcing them to go into a prison. His decision was absolutely reasonable. After all, 90 per cent of children held in prison reoffend when they leave. Is that what we want for Venables and Thompson? But if the law can be so reasonable in taking the potential effects of a prison regime into consideration when it comes to two particularly notorious young criminals, why does it dismiss the needs of thousands of other young people who are sent to prison every year?

Over the last few years the British public and Government seems to have become inured to the idea that thousands of children can languish in squalid and aggressive institutions. Organisations run regular campaigns to alert us to the horrors inside such institutions. Regular reports issued by the Chief Inspector of Prisons condemn particular young offenders' institutions. But children go on being imprisoned, and go on coming out to reoffend.

It was only two months ago that Ian Thomas, the deputy governor of Feltham Young Offenders' Institution, resigned after arriving at work to find that a 17-year-old in the institution had attempted suicide. He described children being "warehoused" in Dickensian conditions. "It doesn't take a genius to work out the possible tragic consequences of such an approach," he argued. A month later, another 17-year-old at Feltham, Kevin Henson, made a noose from a torn sheet and hung himself from the light fitting in his cell.

Because Venables and Thompson are such very famous and such very young criminals, some thought is clearly being put into how they can be rehabilitated. That's as it should be. They were only 10 when they committed their crime; as teenagers, they have apparently grown into remorseful and unaggressive individuals. At least Lord Woolf has looked at them as individuals and seen that prison is not the best place for them. But such individual attention is not on offer to young people who commit less notorious crimes.

As attitudes towards criminals get tougher, spurred on by the tabloid press and the Conservative Party, the old liberal cry to see some of them as victims is generally jeered out of court. But some of them really are victims, and all of them are individuals, with individual needs. We're not talking here just about the occasional very young child who commits a sudden violent act - like Thompson and Venables - and then finds its life destroyed. There are also the lonely, deprived older children who have drifted into lower levels of criminal activity and find that just as there was no one to turn to on the streets, there is no one to turn to in prison: children like Kevin Henson, who killed himself at Feltham, or any of the other 25 children who have killed themselves in young offenders' institutions in the last five years.

Even tougher kids tend to get nothing out of prison apart from a shared education and support group among other young criminals eager to pass on their skills. One concerned observer spoke up a few years ago: "The reason why I believe it to be so fundamentally wrong is that the last thing you want to do with those persistent young offenders is to put them alongside 40 or 50 other young offenders and lock them up for a considerable period of time. All the evidence is that they come out worse than they went in."

That was in 1993, and the speaker was Tony Blair. But has he chosen to do anything about this "fundamental wrong"? In 1993, 1,300 children aged under 18 were held by the prison service; right now the figure is 2,375.

A few months ago I visited one of the most notorious young people's jails in the country, Portland Young Offenders Institution. Set on the south coast near Weymouth, it holds about 550 young offenders aged 15 to 21, of whom about 200 are under 18. On its last inspection by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, David Ramsbotham condemned Portland for its "wholly unacceptable" treatment of young offenders, and described conditions as a "moral outrage".

The inmates I met told me about a heartless, careless system that was doing nothing to enable them to put their lives back together. The first boy I spoke to, let's call him Fred, was 18 and had been in prison for two years. He had fallen into drug dealing after being excluded from school when he was 15. "That's when it all started going wrong for me," he said. "I was just hanging around the streets. I didn't have anything to do."

In two years in Portland no one had made any concerted effort to patch up the gaps in his education or equip him for life outside. Fred said he was desperate to get a job when he is released next year, but "I'm nervous," he confessed at one point.

Another young boy, call him Peter, is 17, and already on to his second spell in custody. Again, he has no qualifications and no training. His times inside have opened his eyes - but not in the way the authorities would like. "You learn what everyone gets up to. How to nick cars, rob houses and that." What does he think would get people like him out of crime? "If they had jobs. If you're bored you just sit around taking drugs and drinking, and then you need money for that and you do stupid things to get it."

When these boys leave Portland, they will have about £95 in their pockets, and that money will have to last them for at least a fortnight until their benefits start. If ex-prisoners don't have any accommodation or occupation set up, during that fortnight of confusion and poverty many will turn, immediately, to their old behaviour.

There is a scheme currently going on in Portland to try to help a few young people clamber back into normal life again. Richie Dell, a charismatic ex-prison officer, is heading a pilot project set up by the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders (Nacro). It sets up educational schemes, approaches prospective employers and helps prison leavers to find accommodation and work outside. It provides that crucial bridge between prison life and life outside, but at the moment it only touches about 15 inmates at a time.

Although the scheme has only been going 18 months, already Dell has found that the reoffending rate among its graduates is lowered by about 20 per cent. It sounds so simple that it's hard to believe that all young prisoners don't have access to such schemes. "I'd like to see the lessons from this project used everywhere," Dell says, "the lesson that resettlement is not a classroom exercise. It's not just telling them what to do, but helping them to secure accommodation and training. They need something to feel good about." But when will this simple lesson be learnt? Not until we see all young people who have committed crimes as individuals.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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