Protection racket

Early last month, 14-year-old Adam Rickwood hanged himself in
his cell at Hassockfield secure training centre. He was the
youngest person ever to die in a British prison. In April,
15-year-old Gareth Myatt died while being restrained by staff at
Rainsbrook secure training centre. According to the campaigning
group Inquest, between January 1990 and December 2003 there were
177 self-inflicted deaths of young people in prison.

The only positive thing to come out of this complete waste of young
lives is that prison reformers have now called for a public inquiry
into the youth justice system as a whole.

In response, the newly appointed chief executive of the Youth
Justice Board, Ellie Roy, has stated that “demands for a review
[into the conditions in which children are kept] must be weighted
against the needs of local neighbourhoods, where young people can
wreak havoc”.

Speaking in a recent newspaper interview, Roy said: “We have not
found anything to solve the problems faced by these kids from very
troubled backgrounds.”

That’s a damning admission. But Roy’s comments will be familiar to
anyone who has followed the wider political debate on law, order
and the young. In recent years, Labour has returned to a much more
traditional stance on law breaking: tougher on crime than the
causes of crime (remember that wondrous Blair phrase which promised
so much?). Ministers are careful about the places and spaces in
which they show their undoubtedly deeper understanding of the
pressures and deprivations that lead a few young people into law
breaking. Meanwhile, the populist message is the one that comes
across most clearly: the public need protecting from these

But do they really? Teenager Joseph Scholes already had a
tragically long history of mental disturbance and sexual abuse when
he was arrested for his marginal part in a mobile phone robbery in
which he had acted as a lookout. Tried at a time of heightened
public anxiety about street crime, he was sentenced to two years in
prison. Even the trial judge recognised his extreme frailty,
expressly requesting that the prison authorities look out for this
child. Nine days later, the 16 year old was dead by his own hand.
Joseph Scholes was a danger to no one but himself.

Barry Goldson of Liverpool University takes a different view from
Roy. Goldson, a senior lecturer in sociology, has studied the issue
of children in custody over two decades and is about to publish
another major report on the subject in November. He believes few
children pose a real danger to society and that custody is not the
appropriate place for most kids.1 Well managed,
community-based interventions yield much better results.

On any substantive ground – humanitarian, rational or financial –
locking up young people just doesn’t make sense. With an 88 per
cent chance of reconviction, re-offending rates are almost
embarrassingly high and it’s an inordinately expensive business. It
costs between £118,000 and £149,000 a year to keep just
one child in a secure training centre: an astonishing figure.

Between 2003-4 we spent £293.5m on children in custody. Just
think: if anyone suggested spending that kind of money on more
liberal solutions there would be an absolute outcry.

Is it really beyond the wit of anyone in government to come up with
radical alternatives to prison when dealing with youth crime?

Entrenched bureaucracies may be incapable of thinking outside the
boxes they have built and sustained over the years. But surely we
elect politicians to provide a more far-sighted view of society’s

Sharing some of the economic truths of containment might help sway
public opinion, although it might also backfire, with the usual
tabloid editorials on “soft options behind closed doors for the
nation’s juvenile terrors” and so on. Goldson asks his students to
come up with other ways to spend the £3,000 per week spent on
locking up a child. It’s not difficult, and the results would
surely be more productive for both the child and society.

Proponents of restorative justice have also convincingly shown that
different methods of dealing with law breaking, such as facing
perpetrators with their victims, can have far more healing effects
on both parties. Surely, these more thoughtful approaches would
yield more positive outcomes than locking away so many young men
and women, where they can only learn more about the detailed
mechanisms of crime, and breed further helplessness in themselves
and those all around them.

1 Barry Goldson,
Vulnerable Inside: Children in Secure and Penal Settings,
The Children’s Society, 2002

Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist.

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