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CYC-Online Issue 6 JULY 1999 / BACK
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YOUTH JUSTICE

Taking care to the extreme

Michael Peacock

In both Britain and the United States, 'the peak period for involvement in relatively minor property crime is adolescence – from 15 to 21. For involvement in more serious crimes the peak age is likely to be rather higher, from the late teenage years through the 20s. Criminality tends to decline steadily after the age of 30.' (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

However, there is a disturbing subgroup in every society: extreme offenders between the ages of 12 and 16 who have committed some of the most serious criminal acts – murder, rape, violent and/or sexual assault. This paper examines the reality of working with boys convicted of such crimes, some approaches, some outcomes, and the costs involved.

The question of what to do with young offenders generates strong feelings across the social and political spectrum.'Hang them', 'lock them up and throw away the key', 'three strikes and you’re out', 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime', 'they're victims before they're villains', 'all they need is love and security' summarises, albeit crudely, the range of opinions.

But just what are we talking about? Let us move to the extreme and start from there.

I have just spent three months in the UK working and teaching – on a curriculum development contract – with extreme offenders held in a Secure Unit. The unit deals with a shifting population of around 30 young boys – aged from 12 to 17 – who have committed some of the worst crimes in England. We are not talking drunken brawls and street fights; we are talking national news headlines. Jamie Bulger-type murders, the murder and/or rape of pensioners, the prolonged gang rape and/or vicious assault of young girls, paedophilia, repeated and/or violent burglary and assault, deliberate torture.

These boys and others like them, all have personality disorders, but they are very different.'A' – with his attitudes, awareness of his crime, his diligent studying, his general helpfulness, and his self-discipline – seems to have a good chance of being successfully rehabilitated; 'B' is a slight boy who remains very dangerous and alienated from all and everything around him; and 'C' is destined to spend his life in a mental institution probably 'chemically coshed' into a stupor for most of the time.

The major problem for 'A' and 'B' is that at 17 they will automatically be transferred to the much tougher regime of open prison, without the support structures in place at the juvenile unit. In this environment, what sociologists call 'the amplification of deviance' will be a real possibility. Their future is bleak.

But the boys are not all 'weird'. About half the kids at the unit are what the staff call 'good old-fashioned villains'. There is Tommy, 15, who over a period of six months robbed some 130 homes (that's roughly five a week), all of them in the few blocks around his own home. And Kurt, 15, almost solely responsible for a surge of 'TWOC-ing' cars (Taking Without the Owner's Consent) in South London. And Hassan, 13, angelic, small, bubbly, maths-loving, and caught drug-running heroin for one of the most notorious gangs in Manchester. And Jacko, 16, who knows almost every criminal featured on a BBC TV programme investigating crime and prostitution in Liverpool: 'Yo, there's Abbo','and him, the tall one, that's Petey, he's my uncle','aw man, that's not true about Jimbo; he's like number one; ace guy; always slip you more than somewhat for an errand'.

For these boys, their criminality seems to be very much the normal way to live in their social and home environment. Their attitude is frequently 'well, it's what you do where I come from.' The family are all at it, and so are most of the neighbours, so why not? The only thing they all have in common is that they've all been caught and, by law, have to be cared for.

The key aim relating to care and education in Secure Unit accommodation in the UK has been summarised as follows:

'The aim must be to create an environment which gives a firm structure and sense of order to the lives of these children.' (1.2, Guidance on Permissible Forms of Control in Children's Residential Care, 1993)

This injunction is taken very seriously. The unit's four houses have many 'homely' features. Each boy is attached to one of the houses, with a fixed staff. About one third of the staff are women. Staff and boys quickly get to know one another well and establish ordered daily routines. Good behaviour is rewarded with little privileges – like radios and room decorations – but these can be withdrawn. In the evening there are various sports, swimming (the unit has a heated indoor pool)and then indoor games (chess, cards etc.) and, finally, an hour or so of TV or a video.

At 9.30pm, the boys are locked into their own secure rooms, some of them en suite. (This 'locking in' is a matter of contentious debate, with pressure periodically being placed on the unit's managers to allow the boys to have control of the lock on their door. Some units in other parts of the country do allow this, but the prospect of some of these boys being able to wander around at night is not something the present managers at this unit will countenance.)

Educating the inmates
All the boys attend school every weekday, in a purpose-built education block that is part of the unit. Many aspects of that schooling differ dramatically, for both teachers and pupils, from the situation commonly encountered in most schools.

Controlling behaviour
Very few of the boys are able to socialise comfortably with their peers for any length of time. Most show no consistent sign of being able to manage in an unsupervised, open environment. Violence flares quickly and unexpectedly, and language can swiftly degenerate into a litany of swear words and gross personal insults, if not constantly checked.

In addition to the teachers, there are always at least four members of the care staff on duty in the education block during school hours. Boys who 'pop' are hauled straight out of class by the care staff and isolated. (To 'pop' means to go haywire in some way; throwing chairs; shouting and swearing, attacking another boy, flatly refusing to do any work, etc.)

There is no messing about. If the boys behave reasonably, they are treated with kindness and tolerance. If they misbehave they are stopped. Immediately. No discussion allowed until afterwards. If they resist, they are 'held down' (literally held face down – and sometimes sat on until they are calm). If there is the slightest sign of things getting out of hand (like other boys getting involved), an alarm is activated (every member of staff carries one at all times) and within seconds free members of staff come rushing in. It's quite a sight, 20 or more people converging at speed on one room or corridor. The boys do not get away with blatant bad behaviour, and they soon learn the lesson. The new ones often try it on once or twice but generally that's it. They settle into what is a very comfortable and secure regime.

The care staff at the unit – generally reckoned to be one of the best in the United Kingdom – are extremely well-trained and are magnificent as a group. There are many minor incidents, of course, but there has never been a serious riot at the unit.

Are such strict staff tactics really necessary? Well, a unit in the south of England catering for the same boys (indeed, many of the boys have spent time in both places) has a different – more 'liberal' – regime. During 1998 it was twice trashed and partially burned by gangs of boys. Both times fully equipped riot police had to be sent in to restore order.

Does it work?
Yes and maybe; as always, it depends ... In the short-term – and while at the unit – almost all the boys settle over a few weeks into a guarded calm. A good few take to the modular and craft-based curriculum with some energy. Behaviour improves and bad language is moderated (or is used rather more circumspectly). Boys still 'pop' from time to time, especially when unsettled by new arrivals, but the calm, the routines, and the absolute limit placed on bad behaviour does have a noticeable and positive effect on nearly all the boys.

In the longer-term, it's much more difficult to answer the question in any straight-forward way. The short stay of many of the boys, the transfer to open prison at 17, and the eventual return to their home environment all complicate any attempt to draw 'cause-effect' conclusions. And there seems to be no consensus among researchers as to whether rehabilitation can be achieved with any consistency, or even how to 'measure' rehabilitation.

In addition, it is not uncommon for 'old boys' to reappear in local and national newspaper headlines. It happened twice while I was there. One boy (now 19) had broken into an astounding number of houses (even more than Tommy) over a short period; another was in court charged with assault on a store-keeper which had resulted in the store-keeper dying (of a heart attack).

My own feeling is that there are probably very, very few dramatic rehabilitations of the 'Reform School Boy awarded PhD/ writes best-seller/ becomes lawyer' type. What there may well be, however, are marginal effects: slightly less violent crimes, a slightly better chance of building positive friendships and/or relationships.

Is it worth it?
What follows is purely financial. What do you think it costs to care for 30 of the most extreme young offenders in England? Guesstimate a figure of how much the possible social benefits of caring for these boys might be 'worth' ... Now read on: It costs R25 000 per boy, per week, to run the unit. That's R1.3 million per place per year. The total budget needed to run this one centre is very close to R40 million per year.

Is it worth it? What are the alternatives? You tell me.

Acknowledgements to ChildrenFIRST 3, 25, June-July 1999

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