Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Life in a young offenders institution

Today’s Guardian carries a compelling article about the realities of life inside a young offender institution. In ‘No place like home’ Amelia Gentleman observes on three days she spent in Ashfield YOI. Important reading for anyone involved in any way with young offenders. It certainly added to the information and understanding I will be able to bring to future training courses on working with young offenders.

Over 40% of the Ashfield population have some form of learning difficulty or conduct disorder. A third have the literacy levels of seven to eleven year-olds. Many have low IQs. A third are on the mental health team’s books, with large numbers taking drugs for ADHD or depression, and lots with very high anxiety levels. A third of prisoners are looked-after children, previously in foster homes or children’s homes, and as many again are known to social services, making 63% of the population overall known to social services.

Plenty of classes are provided, but teachers struggle to engage those young people with no desire to learn or such poor abilities that they use bad behaviour to avoid looking silly to other class members. The transient nature of the population does not help.

About three quarters of young people sentenced to custody reoffend within a year of release, not least because of what they learn inside. One young man recounts the useful things other prisoners have taught him: how to sell drugs for profit, car theft, fighting techniques. Gentleman also discovers that some prisoners deliberately misbehave in the run up to release in the hope their sentences will be lengthened, as they are so fearful of life outside, or else quickly reoffend on release in order to get back inside.

But for all that the YOI provides a roof, food, care and boundaries, it is certainly not a comfortable or friendly place. The article ends with the words of a seventeen year-old gang-leader: ‘Jail is just shit isn’t it? How can they make you better if you’re locked up with all your enemies?’