Seeing beyond the prison uniform
John Newth has visited the Young Offenders Institution on Portland and spoken to its Governor, Steve Holland
Published in February ’11
‘Unlocking’ is not a word you would normally associate with a prison. But the carefully composed list of aims and mission statement of the Young Offenders Institution at the Grove on Portland is distilled into a two-word slogan: ‘Unlocking potential’. It reflects the view held by almost every professional within the Prison Service that of the main reasons for locking people up – public safety, deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation – rehabilitation has by far the greatest long-term importance both for the individual offender and for society.
This does not mean that the Governor of the YOI, Steve Holland, or his staff are bleeding-heart liberals who regard all their charges as victims of circumstance deserving favoured treatment either because of or in spite of their crimes. On the contrary, while devoted to the idea of rehabilitation, they acknowledge that society rightly demands retribution for conduct that harms others. They also accept the need to control unruly or violent behaviour, although it is noteworthy that Portland has the third lowest record for violence among the country’s sixteen YOIs, and the special unit for particularly difficult prisoners, originally designed to hold thirty, now accommodates a maximum of ten and rarely has more than a couple of its cells occupied. But incidents do happen, and one of Steve Holland’s regrets is how difficult it is to interest the police or the Crown Prosecution Service in assaults on staff by prisoners; unless the violence is serious enough to warrant a prosecution, the worst that can happen to the offender is the loss of six weeks’ remission.
At the heart of the rehabilitation programme at Portland YOI is education – and not just classroom, ‘chalk and talk’ teaching but the giving of practical, applied skills. The simple aim, according to Carol Taylor of the education staff, is that ‘each individual should have a programme tailored to his needs so that everyone leaves with some sort of qualification, however modest, that will stand them in better stead in the outside world, and with the wider life skills which form the basis of modern apprenticeships.’ One building, Beaufort, is a modern, well-appointed accommodation block but also a skills development unit for young men who might have social or motivational difficulties in one of the other blocks.
Since new prisoners range from the illiterate to the highly intelligent, it is important to find what each one is good at and to build on that. The result should be an increase in confidence and in self-discipline, which is so much more valuable and effective than imposed discipline. Steve Holland does not underestimate the demands that this approach makes of his staff: ‘It is very difficult to work with prisoners, encountering bad and difficult behaviour every day, yet to look beyond the prisoner’s uniform at the potential that might be there.’
Good evidence of the effects of rehabilitation comes from a well-developed course in railway track maintenance: the re-offending rate among prisoners who take that course is fourteen per cent, against an average of fifty per cent – and the latter figure is on a downward trend. Animals play a part, too: chickens, goats and horses. For example, working out what to charge for a dozen eggs from chickens that he has fed and cared for will mean much more to a young man who finds difficulty with numbers than will sitting through a classroom lesson in arithmetic. Even more important, animals react very obviously to how they are treated, so an offender can learn more about human relationships from giving caring, considerate behaviour to those who depend on him.
Sport is also given a high priority as an ideal way to release energy and develop potential, with a first-class rugby pitch, a well-equipped gym and all-weather football and basketball pitches. The institution received press attention some years ago because of the irony that it was offering a course in pole-vaulting. Undeterred, it has now added a climbing wall to its sporting facilities! There are links with Wasps Rugby Football Club and Wycombe Wanderers FC, with Ian Wright’s ‘Football behind bars’ initiative and with the ‘Prison to pitch’ scheme which puts released prisoners in touch with sports clubs – replacing the gang culture with its rather healthier cousin, the satisfaction of belonging to a team which is disciplined and respects the rules of its sport.
In many areas of the educational programme, the YOI depends on the goodwill of outsiders. Thus Billy Bragg comes in to teach music, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been part of an initiative to encourage some of the prisoners to grow their own food. Less high-profile members of the local community, which has always been generally supportive of the Grove, play a valuable role as volunteers, for example mentoring prisoners who are coming up to release.
In fact, the Grove has been part of the Portland scene for 200 years, having been built to house Napoleonic prisoners-of-war and then adult convicts, some of whom helped to build the Portland Harbour breakwater. From 1924 it was a Borstal and had a good reputation in the community (many Portlanders will still remember the annual ‘Borstal bash’, which raised money for local charities) and further afield. In 1983 it was decided that ‘Borstal’ had negative connotations and all Borstals became YOIs. The change of name was both the result and the cause of woolly thinking and the YOIs struggled to understand what the Prison Service wanted of them, none more than Portland. It continued with the militaristic approach of the Borstals, which easily shaded into violence, and by the mid-1990s, staff/prisoner relationships were being severely criticised by official reports. Unruly inmates of other prisons were threatened with being sent there and it was known as ‘Shank City’, ‘shank’ being prisoners’ argot for an improvised stabbing instrument. In the last fifteen years or so, the situation has been gradually turned around, not least in the last four years under the leadership of Steve Holland, who for the 4½ years before coming to Portland was Governor of Dorchester Prison. Today it is among the institutions to which young offenders prefer to be sent.
The fact that seventy per cent of the 480 prisoners come from London poses its own challenges. Visitors have to travel at least three hours; an attempt to lay on a bus did not work because of the effect of gang rivalry on families. It also means that the re-settlement department has to concentrate on what is needed in the London area. Then there are the cultural differences between the prisoners from an urban background and the prison officers who are based in primarily rural communities. These differences are accentuated by the fact that half of those sent to Portland YOI are from racial minorities; a mosque has recently been created to cater for Moslem prisoners. Racism can be addressed and has been largely controlled, but it is harder in such circumstances to establish a positive rapport. It is a further frustration that YOIs cater only for prisoners between the ages of 18 and 21. This means that even when a lot of work has been put in with a young man and progress is being made, Portland has to pass him on to an adult prison.
‘Boot camps – prisons as places just of punishment and discipline – simply don’t work,’ emphasises Steve Holland, ‘whatever some of the more mindless media may say. They are not a deterrent because most criminals never think they are going to be caught. What prisons and especially YOIs do give us is a chance to help those who are willing to be helped. Being a prison officer hasn’t been seen as a caring profession, and few people choose it as a career to create better citizens, but things are changing: for example, European money is being put into a scheme for prison officers to be trained as life coaches. We’ve got to try these things – if it changes one offender’s life, then it’s worthwhile.’
1 Photography by Mike Summers