THE BOY is singing that Dylan ballad of the romantic death of an outlaw: 'Go take that gun off of me/I can't use it any more/Getting dark, too dark to see/Feel I'm knocking on heaven's door.'
The boy is 12 and a convicted arsonist: he burnt down a supermarket. He is one of the 'nasty pieces of work' that the Home Secretary wants locked up in one of five proposed high-security units for child offenders.
The boy is already a resident at Aycliffe in Co Durham, one of four existing secure children's homes. Aycliffe has recently been beset by controversy. It has been accused, by one former worker, of doing little more than controlling the children it is supposed to treat. Physical restraint is said to be used to prevent the inmates from absconding.
Aycliffe's director, Masud Hoghughi, is a charismatic figure fast becoming a darling of the media for his high-profile denunciation of the legacy of liberalism which justifies the actions of damaged youngsters without taking a moral position on those actions.
There are currently 101 children at Aycliffe, which can take 125; 46 are in secure units, small, dark, claustrophobic buildings around closed courtyards. They are locked up at night, not allowed matches or glass, and the curtains are stuck on to the rails with Velcro - curtain hooks are potential lethal weapons.
Of the 46, some are here for short-term stays of three to six months. They are persistent absconders from other forms of care, potential suicides and self- mutilators, prostitutes, joy-riders. Others, if they had been adults, would have received sentences of 14 years or more for such crimes as arson or aggravated burglary. The rest are detained at Her Majesty's pleasure because they are guilty of a capital offence.
In the secure unit, a pale, dazed boy had arrived the week before, trailing a blaze of media glory. 'How long are you here for?' I asked. 'Life,' he said. 'What did you do?' He backed away. 'He's famous,' a staff member said. 'He was in all the papers. Aggravated rape. He used a screwdriver.' What future for the boy? 'If he's positive, he'll go to the open unit and have an easy life. If he's difficult, he'll go to a Young Offenders Institute. Then on his 18th birthday he'll go to prison. He's 15 now. He'll be 29 when he gets out.'
In the playground, another 'nasty piece of work' sat forlornly on a low wall. 'Are you happy here?' I asked him. 'I'm generally not happy,' he said. 'What are you in for?' 'Murder.' A family member had abused him brutally for years. The boy bought a knife and killed him. He is 16. 'I'll graduate to prison,' he said, hopelessly. 'Are you frightened?' He said he wasn't. His legs shook. 'I reckon these kids are in for a hard time,' he said, really meaning himself.
Legally, one cannot report on the specific backgrounds of these children, but in the files is a glimpse of the mire from which they have sprung: sexual abuse by multiple family members is not uncommon. Aycliffe was once an approved school, before the liberalisation of the treatment of juvenile crime in the late Sixties. Some of its graduates now have children there, as if it were the Eton of the child-crime world. Staff believe that the experience of the approved shools provided no evidence that punishment works.
Ask these children what they are here for and they'll use the language of the court - 'murder', 'arson' - never 'I killed someone' or 'I burned the school down'. 'Most of them find it very difficult to accept responsibility for their behaviour,' said Richard Gilbert, manager of the secure section. 'If you can't do that, how can punishment have an effect?'
Staff at Aycliffe would like to get their hands on Kenneth Clarke: 'I'd like him to spend a month working with us and read the kids' files and see what kind of families they come from,' said Lucy Watson, who works in the secure unit's school. Outside, a teenage girl is sucking her thumb.
All the staff believe that only intensive psychotherapy over a long period will work with these children. They dismiss arguments that secure units curtail children's liberty. The children, they say, need to feel secure and loved. Time must be invested but courts are now reluctant to commit the children for long periods. And for those who face life sentences, treatment will stop at 18 when they enter prison. A therapist is on hand to help them cope with their future.
One child had told me to give Masud Hoghughi a slap from her when I saw him. Another said Masud was 'sound'. He is rumoured to have favourites among the children. A boy complained that a friend had a broken wrist from being restrained.
Dr Hoghughi dismisses such allegations, arguing that his own staff confront physical assault daily. Cradling a delicate blue-and- white Chinese bowl filled with weak tea, or brandishng a machete confiscated from an inmate, he is all too familiar as the figure of a guru. He has run Aycliffe for 22 years. He talks rapidly and eloquently, condemning liberalism and conservatism whenever it suits his argument. Society, he believes, has become too complex to make any sense of, or to hold anyone to account.
He dismisses the view that some of the children in his care are little psychopaths. We now have a portion of the population for which there is no economic role, he says. 'Outlandish behaviour is going to be an increasing problem. How can we create a sense of self-worth for people who are unproductive. These are kids with no investment in the norms of our society. Do you give up and secretly prepare a eugenic selective breeding programme?'
How much can centres like Aycliffe really accomplish. 'Don't tell me the Independent on Sunday is infected with the rotten Thatcherite doctrine that everything should have an end product?' he countered. 'It's part of a civilised society to look after its children. Damage to human beings can't be undamaged. What's the point of the health service? To treat people? We're all going to die. The justification for caring is caring itself, not the outcome. And the more we say that, the more we reassert a civilised society. This is an asylum, a refuge. We have never claimed success.'
To tackle the root causes of depravity in children he would construct a whole society dedicated to parenting. He has two children himself, now 27 and 25. 'Although they are beautiful and intelligent, parenting for me has been the most difficult thing I have ever done. You're re-negotiating the first bases of your principles. When I get angry with them, they say, ' But you're supposed to be a child psychologist ', and I say, 'Forget that, I'm your father '.'
Another staff member summed up 18 years of daily contact with 'nasty pieces of work': 'All we're doing is giving them a bit of niceness in a life that's full of manure. When they get out of here, what is there for them?'
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