(pictured: social worker Chris Lennie, credit: Victor de Jesus/UNP)
A mentoring project in Hull is educating young people about the consequences of violent behaviour, reports Julie Griffiths
● Project name: The Violence Pack.
● Aims and objectives: To educate young people about the implications of fighting and how easily it can lead to severe injury or death and a long-term prison sentence.
● Number of service users: About 1,000.
● Cost of project: £5,000.
● Timescale: It was developed over 18 months with feedback from participants and stakeholders.
In Hull, young people drawn into violence tend to use their fists rather than the knives and guns that feature in incidents elsewhere. Many of the fights are scraps that occur spontaneously because of a perceived slight or slur.
When social worker Chris Lennie was looking around for resources to help address these problems, he found little help. So he devised his own “violence pack” to teach young people about how easily a fight can escalate and end in a death.
“I wanted to develop something that young people locally could relate to,” Lennie says. “I especially wanted to cover kicking to the head and how easily violence can go wrong.”
Lennie manages the Hull Mentoring Project (HMP), which aims to prevent young people becoming further involved in antisocial and offending behaviour. He has been using the violence pack for the past 18 months, working with young people including those passed to him by the pupil referral unit or schools. Most are aged 15 to 17, although ages range between 13 and 24.
Lennie’s five years working with offenders provided a solid basis for the violence pack. It includes discussion topics such as attitudes towards violence, quizzes on how specific violent actions are seen by the law, and the lengths of sentences that might be handed down by the courts. The hope is that, by prompting debate, the messages will be more memorable.
The pack also educates young people on the lasting damage that can be done by a kick to parts of the body and includes input from prisoners in the form of letters and interviews on a DVD (see box).
Lennie says involving offenders in the pack was the best decision he made. Prisoners describe their lifestyle before jail and it is usually one where fights are common. “The offenders are several stages ahead of the people I’m addressing and that’s why it is so important to have these personal experiences in there, talking about how a fight has affected them,” he says.
Craig Clark, manager of HMP’s parent body, the Rights & Participation Project (RAPP), says it is a powerful means of engaging an audience that is notoriously hard to reach. Rather than authority figures, who are perceived to know nothing about participants’ lives, offenders are taken seriously.
“The prisoners’ input has given the pack depth because they have been so honest,” says Clark.
He believes that offenders’ stories de-glamorise crime, particularly because prisoners have spoken about the ongoing consequences of a fight that went wrong. These include ongoing mental health problems behind bars.
Lennie estimates that about 1,000 young people have taken part in sessions so far. However, he has now made his pack available so that anyone – parents, youth club leaders, social workers and teachers – can use it with young people around the UK.
He knows it is effective because of participants’ honesty in their feedback. “These are not people who are going to be polite. If they think it’s rubbish, they’ll tell you,” he says.
The Hull Youth Justice Service has been monitoring the effectiveness of the violence pack. It benchmarks individuals’ offending history before participating in the project then follows up at three, six and nine months afterwards. Over the past nine months, it found a 73% reduction in reoffending. One of the most successful cases was someone who went from 17 offences to none in nine months.
“I want to get across to them that when you fight, you’re rolling the dice with potentially serious repercussions. If you keep doing it then, sooner or later, your luck will run out,” Lennie says.
Case study: From ‘scrapping’ to murder: A lifer’s story
Sam* is serving a life sentence for murder after a fight resulted in a death. In a recorded interview in the violence pack DVD, he says he can no longer remember what the fight was about.
“I used to think that scrapping was the best answer to any argument,” he says. “This occasion was no different from any previous ones.”
Only this time the young man on the receiving end of the violence died from serious head injuries.
Nine years into his sentence, Sam says he lives the consequences of that fight 24/7. His mental health has suffered – anxiety and paranoia attacks are now normal – and he is gripped by a sense of helplessness. He also lives with the knowledge that he has caused suffering to his mother and the family of his victim.
“All of this for one hour of back clapping and respect,” says Sam. “I’ve grown up from being a young teenager into a man on lifers’ wings.”
His experiences often lead him into arguments with fellow prisoners who brag about fighting.
Sam says he may, one day, be released from prison but worries about how he would cope in the outside world. And he knows that, psychologically, he’ll never be a free man.
“I feel him around me all the time. I am never alone,” he says.
* Name has been changed
Engaging young people
● Put crimes in context. For example, explain that kicking someone’s head in a fight could lead to a charge of grievous bodily harm, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Or punching someone who falls and hits their head resulting in death may lead to a charge of involuntary manslaughter – also a maximum sentence of life.
● Acknowledge that some people glorify violence or use it as a means to gain respect from their peers but point out that such a lifestyle is likely to end either with your own death or a prison sentence.
● Explain how easy it is to kill or cause irreparable damage to a person through violence. Many do not realise that kicks to the head can kill.
● Help them understand that drinking or drug-taking is likely to be a significant factor in fights that go wrong – of 100 young prisoners in Hull Prison, 97 were under the influence of drink or drugs when they committed their offence.
● Do not patronise. Teach in a way that is authentic and realistic to the lives they lead.
● If possible, involve people they can relate to, such as young offenders, who have lived similar lifestyles and may have committed an offence at a similar age to them.
Source: Violence Pack author and social worker Chris Lennie
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This article is published in the 21 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Fighting talk to keep the peace