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The wood for the trees

Brian Gannon

I was doing some workshops with the staff of a reformatory. It was an intriguing assignment. Two or three of the teachers and detention officers had been at a short course we had run, and had, for the first time, heard of alternatives to the regimented and punitive modus operandi of their program. They had talked with colleagues at work and a group approached the head of the reform school to ask for these workshops. He had agreed ...

To their general credit, the staff (there were about sixty) had come along to the workshop sessions prepared to listen and debate, and it was soon obvious that the traditional ways of running the school were very much cast in concrete. Any talk about an individual and developmental approach with the inmates was regarded with deep suspicion. They had become used to the military-like parades, the ingrained pecking order which ranked everyone from most senior adult to newest youth, to the system of reward and punishment which had stood the test of time. It was a program which had developed its own idiosyncratic order, style and vocabulary. The latter was a mix of military, public school and prison, with words and phrases like mess hall, fatigues, games, discipline ... and solitary.

And yet the program fell under the state department which also ran other kinds of schools, and normal term times and holidays applied. One of our workshops just happened to fall on the last day of the school term, and it was obvious that everything was in a state of flux as routines were changed and shifts rescheduled. The big discussion of the morning happened to be confinement as a punishment, and “solitary” as the ultimate penalty, usually for gross disobedience and insolence. This last, in any rigid system of authority and discipline, was always the final line drawn in the sand. Whatever other venial sins may be committed, failure to observe authority was the greatest threat.

The general opinion was that the boys had been sent to the reformatory by the courts: custody was therefore the norm, while being allowed outside onto the campus and the playing fields was a privilege to be earned. (The “right wing” amongst the staff themselves even differed as to whether the boys had been sent here as a punishment or for punishment.) Being confined to their sleeping quarters was thus a standard disciplinary measure, and a number of solitary cells were reserved and kept at the ready for the hard cases. Marius Anstey was by all accounts such a hard case, for he was constantly referred to as the example which justified the more serious punishments. The staff seemed to be at one that Anstey should be kept out of circulation. I never got to hear what his actual crime(s) were, but today, on this last day of term, he was certainly the fulcrum on which the balance was weighed between the “hard hats” on the staff and their few more liberal-minded colleagues. If we didn’t respond to his behaviour with uncompromising firmness, the whole ethos of the school might be lost. What would happen if everyone was allowed to do as he liked?! What example would this set to young boys who might otherwise be tempted to follow bad example?

Yes, argued the brave few, but of what use were we adults if we just banished Marius from our sight? If we hoped to be a positive influence in his life, was solitary a way to achieve this? Certainly, came the reply, for boys would all learn a lesson from Anstey’s experience – and Marius most of all! General murmers and harrumpfs of approval. The politics in the room were such that one was hard-pressed to know how best to enter the debate. And, let it be remembered, I was supposed to be running the workshop!

One of the staff stood up to speak. I recognised him as one of the senior staff who had been toeing the party line throughout the morning, and I feared the worst.

"I think I am beginning to understand,” he began.

“Oh yes, please God, understand!” I thought.

He did – and he proceeded to make one of the most insightful (and brave) observations of the day.

"Just before this session,” he continued, “I was driving back to the school from the stores. I just want to ask: if it is so important to the safety and security of our school that Marius Anstey should have been placed in solitary this past week ... why have I just seen him standing by himself, unescorted and unsupervised, at the bus stop on the road outside, waiting to go home to spend the ten days' holiday with his mother?!”

Utter silence in the room. Urgent collecting of thoughts, assembling of answers to his question – also self-examination and logical realisation, I hoped ...

"I can’t help thinking,” he went on, “that Marius will learn more helpful lessons about real life and his role in tomorrow’s world in the next few days in his mother’s poor home, than he would ever learn here. I wonder what, when he is twenty-five or forty years old, he will remember of us when he looks back on his time here? And will he be remembering us from an adult prison cell ... or if he is remembering us from his own home where he is a father and a husband and a breadwinner, will he be remembering us as people who helped him with these roles, as people who helped him and who taught him about these things ...?”


”... or will he remember us with contempt and regret for the games we play here – instead of doing what we should be doing – and I’m not too sure what we should be doing here and I think we ought to be learning about that.”

It was a life-changing moment for the speaker, and certainly for me, and I think for many others in that room. Though I know (for I watched as they eventually left for their own ten days' holiday that morning, collected into dissenting cliques) that many were more determined than ever to maintain the system they had built and worked with for so long. But I knew that a new voice had spoken, more significant for that it had come from within the establishment of that institution, and that we would embark on at least a different course when we gathered again the following term.

* * *

This is not the story I meant to write.

All this came back to me when I read the reports in the British press this past month ...

Young offenders eligible for early release are to be identified as a matter of urgency to prevent youth prisons becoming full. The Youth Justice Board (YJB), which oversees the running of prisons for young people, is proposing a series of new measures because young offenders institutions are nearly full. ... But the plans, prompted by rising numbers of young offenders either jailed or remanded in custody, have sparked fears that young prisoners will be released from prison too early and pose a threat to the public – although the YJB insists this will not happen.

The admission that young offenders institutions are nearly full comes after revelations that adult prisons are also close to capacity. In the statement, the YJB says that “the secure estate for children is nearing operational capacity”, adding that the new measures are necessary to mitigate the situation.
-The Guardian, 10 August 2006

This news item from a supposedly civilised western country in mid-2006 must be one of the worst horror stories from the annals of Child and Youth Care. It illustrates, just like the memory of the reformatory above, the unashamed inversion of the proper ranking of system vs. individual: Young people are to be released from prisons because they need the space for other incoming prisoners. One deduces that had there been no demand for space, these early releases would not have taken place.

Please tell me that you have better criteria for releasing young people from prison ... maybe (dare one hope?) that you have reached some point in your work with them that both you and the youngsters feel that they can now make a go of things with hope of better success? Tell me that you have had some encounter with the kids, that you have shared some relationship and time together, that you have developed some plan or curriculum or tasks which lead to the future – so that when they stand at the bus stop on the day they leave, it is because both you and they cherish some memories, some optimism, some confidence – not only that you wanted to make space, that you wanted their beds for someone else.

For otherwise, what have you been doing in there with each of these kids? Have you merely been playing cops and robbers like the staff in the story above? Playing out the roles of the keeper and the prisoner – the prisoner not only of your gates and walls but the prisoner of a locked identity, the prisoner of an inferior and despised status, of no more value than that he occupied one of your beds. What attitude must you then have had towards him, and what sense of self-worth would he now have, if he has been to you just a quantity, a cypher?

Will you miss him when he is gone? Will he take with him something of you? Will he still have only his troubled past, or will he be in some way different for the future? Have you, too, in all the time you have spent with this youth, been unable to see the wood for the trees?

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