Thursday, 13 November 2014
Government statistics tell me that more than 1 in 5 adult prisoners in the UK have spent time in care and the younger the age of the prisoner the more likely it becomes.
Another quote I see frequently is that if you have spent time in care you are more likely to go to prison than university. Now I don't know the source of that statistic and can't vouch for its accuracy but I have one of my own. In the last four years I have supported 5 young care leavers, some for years and others for just a week or two. In my own highly subjective sample group two young people are serving time in YOIs, none of them have attended university. K almost made it, she was doing very well at her A levels, but she became pregnant while still at sixth form so higher education is on the back burner for a while.
Why is this on my mind? Well I am visiting OT in prison this weekend, OT being the acronym for Older Teen. OT lived with me off and on for a year before beginning his latest custodial sentence which he says will be his last, although I remember he also said that last time. He is bright, articulate and both his birth parents are educated to degree level. His spelling and grammar are appalling, due to frequent school exclusions and truancies, but he has been in custody for most of his teens and surely they teach them something in the education classes in these places?
Most of our conversation in the visits hall will be about his release in the New Year, while I repeatedly plunder the vending machines to feed his insatiable appetite for chocolate. If prison hasn't properly educated him it would seem it isn't feeding him enough either.He will be full of plans and optimism (and Mars Bars) and I will do my best to share his enthusiasm, but it will be guarded. I remember better than he does how hard it is for him to cope outside prison, surrounded by triggers and without the safety net of a very restricted routine. "I've turned it round, I'm never going inside again, swear down." I know his good intentions are genuine but fear that they may come to nothing with all the temptations he will face back out in the community.
Now don't get me wrong, over the years he has done some pretty terrible things and made one bad decision after the next, and he fully deserves the sentence he was given. The world is not black and white though, it is possible to be a perpetrator and a victim at the same time and the system has failed this young man. Placed in Local Authority care by his parents at 13, with mental health, behaviour and attachment issues, he was incredibly tough to place and ended up in a residential home poorly suited to his needs. Many of his peers there were persistent offenders and it wasn't long before the length of his list of previous convictions matched theirs. When he received his first detention and training order it came as a relief, he felt safer in a secure children's home than he had outside, in fact when the sentence was over he re-offended to return to that environment which he found easier to cope with. Fast forward to 18, the age when he first moved in with me, and a string of almost back-to-back short sentences meant that for the previous 5 years, those crucial teenage ones, the criminal justice system had brought him up.
I was shocked and saddened by his life when I first read the file but it didn't take long for me to discover that his is a common story. His Facebook friends list is full of young, care-experienced people with a similar tale to tell. He is luckier than quite a lot of them, he won't be released to a hostel or B&B this time like many 20 year-olds leaving custody. Instead of a lonely train ride to his home town carrying all his possessions in one small bag he will be collected by car at the gate, stopping on the way back for a McDonald's breakfast, heading to my house where his room already contains the personal items not in his possession at the time of arrest. Here he has support to make a fresh start, if he has the ability to take advantage of it this time. I really, really hope so - watch this space!