Tag archives: young offenders

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?’

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Exhibition of art by offenders

There are just a few days left to see the inspirational Koestler Trust exhibition of art by offenders and secure patients at the Royal Festival Hall. I am so pleased to have got to it. My especial interest was in the young people’s works on display, because of the training I give on engaging with young offenders. I found their art moving and poignant, and in some cases beautiful, disturbing or funny. I was delighted that the fabulous 1066 animation made by young people with the Norfolk Youth Offending Team and the Castle Museum, which I have blogged about before, is on show, and has won a special award for animation for under-18s. There is another fabulous animation, Call for Help,  about a trip to Hell, made by a group of six young offenders at Blair House YOI. Disappoint Man, a tellingly-named portrait by an anonymous inmate at Feltham YOI, is troubling and enigmatic: does the face portray fear, aggression, distrust, or perhaps all of these? The blurb written by the anonymous creator of a lovely picture called Snowfields, who comes from a secure children’s home in Scotland, particularly struck me: ‘I was not interested in art at all until I was placed into a secure centre. I believe art has helped to increase my confidence in myself.’ Underlining this, a poster in the exhibition demonstrates the impact of the arts on young offenders’ lives: 75% of young offenders who participated in summer arts colleges run by Unitas in 2009 went onto further education, training or employment.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

It doesn’t have to rhyme: children and poetry

Saturday’s IBBY conference was fantastic. Wonderful sessions by great poets and academics on how poetry works and why it matters.

Morag Styles was inspiring, demonstrating how poetry ‘gets to the parts other literature doesn’t reach’. Like many of the speakers, she lamented current literacy teaching (especially the ‘eat up your greens’ approach to poetry teaching), and public sector budget cuts, and their impact on children’s access to poetry. But she also celebrated the fact that children’s poetry still thrives, in schools and out – lovely to hear about poems on Wimpy napkins.

And just to prove her words, we saw a fantastic video of poetry slam winner Sarah Olowofoyeku performing ‘Please mind the gap’, and heard about contemporary poetry publishing from an expert panel.

Michael Rosen’s lecture on how poetry ‘does its stuff’ was brilliant: erudite, insightful and very funny. Who else would think to use ‘It’s raining, it’s pouring’ as their main text? He had loads of practical ideas for making schools poetry-friendly. Instead of adjective-spotting exercises, the emphasis should be on performance and on open discussion that delves into meaning and children’s responses.

I felt very lucky to attend a workshop by Kimberly Black and Imogen Church. Kimberly was fascinating about the prevalence and value of young people’s spoken word poetry in the US, showing us how participatory poetry is a form of democratic engagement. Imogen was very interesting on poetry written by juvenile offenders. Writers working with young offenders know never to ask them to write poems; suggesting ‘spitting bars’ is a whole lot more acceptable.

Philip Gross gave us yet more proof of the power of poetry with fabulous renditions of poems from his newest book, Off Road to Everywhere. The conference ended with a fascinating talk by the amazing Jacqueline Wilson on the processes of putting together her new anthology of poems for girls, Green Glass Beads.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The role of cultural and heritage organisations in supporting young offenders

It was great to give a course on working with young offenders for CILIP South East yesterday with John Vincent of The Network. The participants were highly experienced and deeply committed, with representatives from galleries, archives, public libraries and libraries in prisons and young offender institutions (YOIs). We explored how cultural and heritage organisations can contribute to YOIs’ agendas in terms of building young offenders’ confidence and self-esteem, fostering practical and social skills, and reducing re-offending rates. I found the debates about the constituents of effective projects and on-going work to support young offenders particularly interesting. Evidence shows that young offenders are more likely to respond enthusiastically to schemes that tie in with their interests and experiences, produce something tangible, and give them a sense of achievement. The involvement of the young people themselves in decisions is crucial. Storybook Dads, the Six Book Challenge and the Arts Award have been used extremely successfully in many YOIs, to give just a few examples. We talked about the importance of developing good partnerships between YOIs and cultural and heritage organisations, and the value of preventative approaches, working with Youth Offender Teams and virtual schools, for instance. Many thanks to everyone for sharing so many excellent ideas, and an especial thank you to Rachel Westworth for her invaluable case study on her work with young offenders at HMP Lewes.

While on the subject of young offenders, this is a useful article about how ex-offenders are helping turn young people away from crime.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Training courses on working with young offenders

A quick reminder that John Vincent and I are giving another course on engaging effectively with young offenders in Crawley on 29 September. The course is for people working in the cultural and heritage sector, including libraries, museums, galleries and archives. For anyone unable to make that date or venue, we are repeating the course in Leeds on 23 November.

There is more about our training on this topic on my website.