I thought I'd pen a few words about the first of a two-part ITV1 documentary filmed last year in Aylesbury Young Offender Institution. Just like the similar documentary on Strangeways, there was plenty of action and just that nagging doubt some of it was put on specially for the cameras.
I sometimes wonder why the MoJ agrees to allow film crews into prisons, after all it's quite likely to be pretty unpleasant. Judging by some comments reported on twitter and reported here, the public have been shocked and clearly have no idea what sort of thing goes on inside some prisons and YOI's. For that reason alone it's got to be worth it. Maybe the MoJ feel the public will be sympathetic, but if this is typical, the view is 'they're animals - keep 'em locked up and throw the key away.' Maybe it's designed to scare-off would-be miscreants. I don't know.
Despite one Young Prisoner being taken hostage, I didn't find this programme as shocking as Strangeways as we were spared the self-inflicted razor-slashing, but I'm sure it goes on. What is clear is that there are a lot of very damaged young men in custody and Aylesbury only holds the long-termers, a staggering one fifth doing life or other indeterminate sentences. Some will indeed never get out if they don't receive specialist treatment.
Of course what such long-termers really need is stability and counselling, and neither is available here. As YP's they will all be shipped out into the main adult prison estate at age 21, so they're just 'marking time' and getting some amusement from indulging in some territorially-based gratuitous violence in the meantime. Saying 'hello' to each other as one female prison officer put it.
In all my dealings with prisons of various sorts I think I'm usually most disappointed with the mental health and psychological services. As with Strangeways, this programme confirmed this view. Some of these guys, if not suffering from quite serious mental illness, have certainly been psychologically damaged and require skilled counselling. Experience tells me that this will almost certainly not be available. Psychologists, mostly trainees it has to be said, will write assessments and reports, but will not deliver any therapy. A big mistake in my view.
As usual there is often a woeful failure to understand the difference between the appropriate remit of a psychiatrist, as opposed to that of a psychologist. Many of these lads would fall into the legitimate remit of the latter, rather than the former. The difference between mental illness and abnormal thinking is significant and requires different responses. If only more people in the criminal justice system understood this, it would reap huge benefits for those incarcerated, and us all further down the line.
The second part of this documentary has now aired, showing yet more disturbing scenes including incidents of self harm noticeably absent from the first episode. Much of the YP's behaviour in the second part might be termed as childish attempts to manipulate or gain attention, such as the three-day hunger strike, but I think there was plenty to confirm that many of these emotionally-damaged young men require skilled counselling.
The inevitable move of the 'hard men' long-termers' to adult establishments at age 21 may well have some beneficial effect as they will have even harder men to deal with. I don't think they will be able to cause as much disruption or damage to key prison infrastructure such as pool tables, and this in itself might provide a valuable lesson in progressing to greater maturity.
The main message to me though in this episode was the importance of each inmate having an outside home probation officer, not connected to the prison, and hence able to mediate, advocate and advise on their behalf. I've done this many times and been able to help prisoners progress when they've become locked into a cycle of destructive and uncooperative behaviour whilst in custody. Probation has an absolutely key role to play in the sort of situations we saw played out at HM Prison Aylesbury.