Charities: Understanding age-old problems of youth: Joanna Gibbon on a trust that helps prison staff to gain more insights into adolescent offenders

Joanna Gibbon
Thursday 25 February 1993 00:02

JIMMY HUGHES, senior officer of physical education at the brand-new Lancaster Farms young offenders' institution, on the outskirts of Lancaster, is looking a little concerned. He and all the staff are attending a course on understanding adolescents, organised by the Trust for the Study of Adolescence (TSA), and today the group sessions have run over time - no one can stop talking.

Mr Hughes and some of the others have been in the prison service for some time and are keen on a tight timetable. But these are unusual days at Lancaster Farms: the builders are still working on the site and the young offenders have yet to arrive.

Juliet Lyon, the TSA's associate director, who has been running the adolescents' course - the first of its kind to be commissioned by the Home Office - stresses that it is not trying to explain why young people get involved with crime; it is aimed at awareness.

The trust, which in its five-year life has gained a reputation for its research into teenage parenthood, adolescent sexuality, suicide and self-harm, and young people and divorce, is keen to demonstrate that it is not spouting theory at reluctant prison employees. What is being discussed, says Ms Lyon, has some practical use for those handling and affecting the lives of the young people who pass through their hands.

Lancaster Farms is intended to be progressive and the employees were carefully chosen for their openness to the regime. They will be dealing with boys on remand aged 15 years and upwards, and convicted adolescents aged 18 to 21, who may have committed offences ranging from car theft to murder.

'This is not a soft do-gooding exercise. This knowledge increases the abilities of my staff to handle these kids and avoid stereotyping them,' explains David Waplington, governor of Lancaster Farms.

The trust's course is in keeping with the institution's ethos and, after some readjustment, has been carefully woven into the specific problems of young offenders. 'It is important to stress that we are talking about teenagers and that those who have offended share similar problems with the rest of the teenage population,' says Ms Lyon.

Everyone on the course agrees about the nature of adolescent behaviour: it is a time of great change, where behaviour is impulsive, moods swing between wanting the freedom of adulthood and the security of childhood; it is a time of life when habits and interests which last a lifetime can be formed.

The first exercise in the trust's three-day course involves asking the officers to think of three lies about themselves when they were teenagers. 'Some said they had been the games captain when they were useless at sports, or were great at pulling the girls when in fact they were older when they had their first relationship,' says Ms Lyon.

The point of the test, which was carried out in pairs, is that it is a quick and paradoxical way of finding the truth. 'You know exactly what the opposite is and it is quite humorous,' says Ms Lyon, explaining that it helps those working with young people, many of whom lie, to understand why they are being deceitful. Often there is very little in the young person's life and lying helps him save face.

The exercise rapidly reminds people of their own teens. A few had not enjoyed this; it had recalled painful and personal memories. Others had reacted by saying that none of the offenders' behaviour related to themselves or their own teenage children, arguing that theirs had been a poor family but they did not break the law.

In its recent research with children in care, the trust found that young people are more easily influenced by adults and that they need them. While the peer group is consulted about matters concerning clothes or hairstyles, a caring adult is sought out for more difficult emotional problems and doubts.

The trust helps show the prison officers how important their role can be in relation to the offenders, and demonstrates that listening skills, being trusted as well as giving tough, firm guidelines, can have beneficial effects. While some of the staff already knew this, they still found the course boosted confidence.

Mervyn Williams, a quiet but strong-looking officer, says that the course has helped his understanding. 'I can see why - by looking further - an adolescent is winding me up. It may be because their mum hasn't visited them; so we get the flak. Their anger is taken out on us. An officer's position is very responsible - we can change the life of a young offender: they look to see how we act.'

Mr Hughes, who has worked in the prison service for 15 years and is planning a tough physical education programme, has found the TSA's course invaluable. 'I wish I had had this training 10 years ago, I may have handled some of them differently,' says Mr Hughes.

Officers will embrace the personal officer scheme, whereby they are assigned a few young boys for their personal attention. Among other things, the course guides prison officers to look at each one individually, to recognise, for instance, that where two boys might be withdrawn, one boy's disposition might be normally withdrawn, while the other is displaying depressive or suicidal tendencies.

At first, it appears that working on many of these issues with young men of 18 or 19 is too late, but both Ms Lyon and Mr Waplington maintain that many offenders have been in care, or have been severely neglected, and consequently have retarded development. The staff are now keenly aware that the young offenders' institution can be a young person's last chance to make serious changes in their life.

But sifting out what is ordinary adolescent behaviour and what is a reaction to being imprisoned at Lancaster Farms, combined with the physical energy and hurly-burly of 300 boys being held in an institution, is going to be uphill work. The TSA's work with Lancaster Farms will continue for two years, but the latter's task is nevertheless highly ambitious and demanding. Mr Waplington remains optimistic: 'Institutions have tended to treat anger as aggression, or challenging behaviour as criminal - there are many more implications when you open the issue up.'

(Photograph omitted)

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