No hats or hoodies, minimum swearing, no gum, one at a time to the toilet, respect. These are a few of the rules that the group of young people slouched in the visitors’ room of HMP Coldingley, Surrey, have to abide by for the next few hours. For the most part looking bored or unimpressed, the young people in question are here to attend the prison’s crime diversion scheme (CDS). If this prisoner-run project succeeds, this will be the first and last time they venture inside prison walls.
As they walk into the room, the teenagers are given a clipboard so they can score the themes that make up the day, either by writing comments, giving marks out of 10 or drawing a smiley or unhappy face depending on their reading and writing skills. Then they are split up as they sit down so they are not next to their cohorts to emphasise that, once inside, you are alone with no choices.
The aim of the CDS, a registered charity, is to divert young people from crime and aid prisoner rehabilitation. It is for 13- to 17-year-olds at risk of offending or involved in crime who have not served a custodial sentence. And research by Kingston Youth Offending Team suggests that it works: reoffending rates of young people who visited Coldingley were lower than for others who had not.
Up to seven prisoners work full-time on the scheme, and there is scope for 20 part-time volunteers. Currently there are just eight because the average time prisoners are spending in Coldingley is four months, says project administrator Pauline Newton. As all CDS volunteers have child protection and youth worker training to NVQ level two, this constant prisoner turnover makes it difficult for Newton to retain a full quota of trained volunteers.
Young people are brought in to the CDS by youth offending teams, pupil referral units, police and community-based projects. Today’s group of 12 young people from three Yots have had to come as part of their referral orders, which is why several seem reluctant to participate initially.
Graham, one of the full-time workers, has been with the CDS for three months: “It’s a unique opportunity. I’ve been studying counselling-related courses and it allows me to put that into practice. It gives me a sense of purpose.”
After taking the young people through the rules, Graham lines up the prisoners. By this time Newton has melted into the background, leaving the prisoners in charge of running the day. On a board is a list of crimes and sentences ranging from conspiracy to import class A drugs (14 years) to armed robbery (two-strike life) and GBH (five years). The theme is “perceptions” and the young people have to guess which crime fits which prisoner. They get all bar one wrong. The lesson, as one of the young people points out, is to “never judge a book by its cover”.
But as some of the group begin to look impressed by the crimes, Graham – who is the two-strike lifer – warns: “Don’t be impressed by any of that shit.”
One boy replies: “Well, you’d be impressed if you got away with it wouldn’t you?”
This is the first of several times that the young people’s views on offending are challenged. Graham responds by saying that advanced techniques mean criminals are unlikely to get away with it. “Why are prisons full and why are they building more?” he asks. The audience gets his point.
And just in case they haven’t, during the prisoners’ testimony session – one of the most powerful parts of the day, when each prisoner talks honestly about their offending – Graham ends by saying: “People suffer in here. Grown men cry in their cells at night. My story isn’t unique. Prison is a dirty, noisy, horrible place and I hate it. Prison ain’t cool, and criminals aren’t the ones to look up to.”
This is the main point of the day it’s all about prisoners highlighting the choices faced by young people in relation to offending and exploring the consequences of their behaviour.
Role play and acting with masks to represent your conscience and how people disguise their feelings are other ways that the prisoners get their message across. They look at offending from the point of view of the victim and the perpetrator’s family, as well as the offender, so that the young people start questioning their behaviour.
Another full-time worker, Simon, moves on to the “introduction to prison life” session. He’s a charismatic speaker and, slowly, all except two of the young people start to participate. He talks about the food and the regulated times inmates can shower or use the phone. He makes them think about not having a mobile phone. And then there are the clothes. The teenagers recoil as he brings out regulation underwear, jogging bottoms, T-shirts and trainers worn by prisoner after prisoner.
“All this is free if you want it,” says Simon. “See this place, it isn’t racist, it isn’t sexist, they take all comers.”
He has done a good job dispelling any glamorous myths. But just to prove the point that prison is a brutal place, poster-sized photos are brought in showing injuries sustained by prisoners who have been attacked by other prisoners using weapons such as rusty knives and knuckledusters that they have managed to hide. One photo shows someone who has had their throat cut so badly that the head remains attached to the body only by staples. There’s an intake of breath from the young people when they see the injury and realise it’s a woman.
When Simon tells them she was a probation officer who was attacked by a prisoner, one of the boys says: “She deserved it then.”
Simon immediately challenges this, asking: “So if you were in prison and another prisoner did this to you, would it be fair for me to say that you deserved it because you were in prison?”
He argues back and Simon finally appears to win the argument. But the exchange is a measure of the attitude that Yots are working with.
The day ends with Jonathon’s testimony, who finishes by saying: “My message is that I had lots of opportunities to do the right thing but I didn’t want to listen to anybody. Take my story: stay working, find something you enjoy and stick with it and don’t come somewhere like this.”
Both the prisoners and professionals in the room hope that, for once, the young visitors listen.
WHAT THEY SAY
● “You go around doing stuff and you don’t think about it. When I heard the prisoners talking, I thought ‘I better sort it out. That might be me’.”
● “I respect them, not for what they done but for being straight with us. It made me listen.”
● “I thought I’d go and muck about, you know. But when I got there it was like ‘this ain’t a joke’, and it made me think about things.”
For more information on the Crime Diversion Scheme