Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Life Re-moulded

How should society respond to a 14 year old murderer? Having convicted me and left me loitering around the remand centre for six months, I was whisked away - 'allocated'.

Youth Treatment Centres were run jointly by the Home Office and DHSS and staffed with social workers and psychologists rather than prison staff. Glenthorne YTC had fearsome levels of procedural security and control, but had the appearance of a large modern children’s home. Tucked in the suburbs of Birmingham, only the 18 foot security fence differentiated it from its surroundings.

Unknown to me, my trial Judge had written to the Home Office to suggest that I serve ten years of my life sentence. What moral balance, what weighing of my life against my victims, produced that number? This is the essential difficulty with murder - it is unalterably final. What punishment is fitting for that crime? The obvious and populist answer is that the murderer should forfeit his own life. This sits quite easily on the lips but in reality misses great chunks of reasoning. The answer can only be discerned when another question has been asked and answered - what is the purpose of the punishment?

In my case, I was sentenced under a law which no longer exists - the Children and Young Persons Act of 1933. The date is slightly comforting, it reassures us that serious crime by the young is not a modern phenomena. This Act is explicit in its intent that, whilst punishment is inherent in the sentence, that sentence should also attempt to be reformative. This affords some special status to children, an acknowledgement that we are not fully formed and so capable of change. Children are redeemable in the view of 1933; this patina of decency broke down on the streets of Liverpool in 1992 as grown men charged at police vehicles carrying two ten year old murderers. The post-Bulger legal outlook shifted to reflect the populist punitiveness encouraged by Michael Howard. In the name of elevating the special status of children, that special status of children was undermined.

The existence of the YTC's suggests that at some policy making level a deliberate decision was made, after careful consideration, that young murderers were salvageable. My life was not to be written off. Not that I had any clue of this. Approaching a year after the crime, I had still not had any information about my sentence or what it “meant". As far as I was concerned, “life meant life”, although I assumed that I would be released at some point. Not that I was concerned; long term thinking isn't the preoccupation of teenagers.

Internally, it contrasted with prison. Where prison had sharp, hard edges, Glenthorne has rounded yielding ones. The furniture was foam, the doors were wood. No staff uniforms, although each had keys and a radio. In this way the physical security was less oppressive and obvious. The procedural security, the way it was run, was much more intrusive than prison. Whereas in prison I was left alone for hour after hour, at Glenthorne I was almost constantly monitored. Each ten minutes, staff physically checked my presence. I could be in the bath or on the loo - they still looked in. The depth of control was near absolute, down to the number of slices of toast I could have for breakfast.

This flowed from the nature of the regime. Whereas prison didn't actually try to do anything with us, Glenthorne's explicit aim was to change its captives. To this end, it ran a regime based on behaviour modification - I became one of Pavlov's dogs, being prompted to salivate at the merest whiff of a positive or negative reinforcement. That's punishment and reward to the psychologically untrained.

Daily life was turned on its head. Whereas in prison the majority of time was spent in forced isolation, at YTC it was spend in forced society. From breakfast time onwards we were held in the lounge, all doors leading away being locked. With a 1 to 1 staff-prisoner ratio, we were observed keenly and unremittingly. This extended to staff physically inserting themselves on the seating between us when we were talking to each other. Barely a moment passed that could be called 'private'. These were islands comprising short seconds of time; turning a corner, for instance, where staff were a few feet behind. This was often more difficult than sitting alone in a cell for 23 hours a day.

The main structured intervention in our lives was the 'token economy'. This was a system previously used most often to regulate the behaviour of severe schizophrenics. Nice... It was a simple system. We were allowed nothing unless we could buy it with tokens. Tokens were points earned through achieving behavioural targets. Points were awarded by staff at the end of each hour. At the start of each day we were issued our scorecards, listing our targets, and each hour we had to present these to staff to be marked. See, simple.

And demeaning. It was being perpetually judged like a child. That I had killed someone didn't mean that I needed to be awarded points for getting out of bed, washing and dressing. Points couldn't be earned until the end of the first hour of the day and so we didn't have any to spend at breakfast - we had to buy an extra slice of toast, a second cup of tea. To turn on our own radio, to watch TV, even to put posters up in our own room - even access to that room - all of these had to be bought with these phantom points.

As per the strictures of Skinner and Watson, this was behaviour modification with a vengeance. A moment by moment reckoning, an attempt to make us behave precisely as staff prescribed. As a murderer, one would imagine some grand target, probably based around violent behaviour, that would guide the daily assessment of my life. One would be wrong. My target was to increase my level of eye-contact during conversations. And as the following 28 years revealed, standing up and looking my keepers in the eye is not the benefit Glenthorne believed it to be.

13 comments:

  1. Even when we're really trying to do the right thing, we get it so very wrong don't we :/

    I read some psychology research the other day that said token economies don't provide lasting benefit, even with schizophrenics. They improve behaviour while institutionalised but, on release, there is no difference in behaviour between those who have and have not been subjected to the regime. Fail.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The treatment of children who commit grave crimes has regressed considerably. Even the Victorians were more progressive. In 1861 two 8 year old boys from Stockport were tried and convicted for the murder of a toddler. The case was virtually identical in manner to the Bulger case. Like the two offenders, the boys had no real understanding of what they had done. Eventually, they were convicted of manslaughter and sent to a reformatory to 'be taught better things and will have a chance of becoming better boys' (the words of the judge).

    Their sentence - five years. No hatred, no abuse, no vigilante attempts to rip them limb from limb. Indeed, when the boys were removed, there were shouts of approval regarding the sentence from the gallery.

    The press at the time were full of understanding and compassionate editorials. Indeed, it appears from records that boy boys were actually released early from their reformatory.

    How sad that 130 odd years later (the Bulger case was 1993 Ben by the way, not 1992) we descended into neanderthals when it came to two disturbed and damaged children.

    ReplyDelete
  3. hiya i was in glenthorne too would like to share exprences so if ne one would like to contact me please do via: crispycoating@yahoo.co.uk

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was in glenthorne from 1990 to 1994 i have tryed to e-mail you but it wont let me send? Contact me at Codie157@outlook.com

      Delete
  4. I to was in glenthornes, for a few years, and must admitt it turn my life around, my name was christine,i was there in the early 80,s, it would be great to hear from anyone that use to be there, my email address is k-a-b-64@hotmail.com :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. I was in glenthorne in the early 90s, they kept me in there for as long as they possibly could, while at the same time denying me my right to an education. They booted me out at the end with 2 weeks parole into a bail house with 2 criminals in their 40s. I, of course, completely failed to re intergrate into society, i cant help feeling that it was designed that way as i witness similar situation with others in there. What that place really did was give me a life sentence, i could have been a productive member of society, instead i have never worked in my life and am miserable and alone. Its all very well "modifying behaviour" but they modify you to exist in their little world, "normal" people simply cant relate. That place is evil, like the filth that work there, and i wish them all the pain an ill fortune that the world has spare.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well said my life is the same as yours i was in glenthorne for 4.5 years I was on every ubit Snowdon,Old Caingorn,New Caingorn,The Open Unit Everest then back to closed conditions Malvern then with 3 months of my sentence left i was moved back to Hmp yoi Glen Parva where i really lost it was kicked out with £36 discharge grant homeless!!!. Glenthorne done nothing for me except growing up a hater. My name is Stephen and I want to speak to anyone else who has been in Glenthorne to share there experiances.
      Contact me at Codie157@outlook.com

      Delete
  6. Anonymous, not much comfort for you from a stranger I know but I am so sorry for what you have been through, and that you are lonely and sad on Christmas eve.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thx jules :) I found this page by googling "glenthorn survivers". There really ought to be a forum or something where people who were there could chat and swap experiences. I would be very interested to find out how the people i grew up with turned out.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Anon, I hope you had a peaceful Christmas. Why don't you start a forum yourself? I'm sure other ex-residents would find it helpful too. They will all have different experiences to relate and some will have faired better than others. Good luck anyway, take care.

    ReplyDelete
  9. It's difficult to find knowledgeable people about this subject, however, you seem like you know what you're talking about! Thanks
    Take a look at my site ... Hire ex-offenders

    ReplyDelete
  10. hi i was in glenthorne too for 5 years from age 10-15 luckily i got out the right even after breaking out by taking one of the bedroom walls out on the open unit. yeh i know an open unit lol. anyone want to chat can email me at nancosismine@hotmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  11. Anyone come across a staff member called Jim Sullivan whilst in Glenthorn?
    Any thoughts/observations?

    ReplyDelete