The rise of the thuggettes

Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah -
Dance United. Photo credit: Chris Leah -

Society faces a surge of young girl criminals if it fails to intervene to tackle the reasons they break the law, a forthcoming report has concluded.

The study suggests projects and schemes aimed at young offenders should treat females differently by addressing the effects of the violent or sexually abusive relationships and family breakdown that often lie behind their offending.

The report by the Centre for British Teachers Education Trust (CfBT) research group found that while limited work in the US has shown “promising” results, there has been little take-up in Britain. Without this change, CfBT’s director Tony McAleavy said, “the figures seem to support the fact that the further into the youth justice system you go, the more likely you are to reoffend. It’s evidence that custody doesn’t work.”

One organisation has for three years put troubled teenagers back onto the right side of the law using – perhaps surprisingly – contemporary dance, and its results are impressive. One woman, Ruth, joked: “I was a majorette as a girl, so at least I have some dancing experience.” But after becoming addicted to heroin and crack, she has spent two years in prison. “My confidence was really low but, now, to be able to get on stage without using drugs is amazing, I never thought I’d be able to do that.”

The Dance United project based in Bradford accepts teenagers and young adults from across the north. Cohorts of around 10 to 15 are put through an intensive 12-week course, with a public performance after just three weeks.

They are drawn from prison and young offenders units, from youth offending teams and probation, and from local authority care. But on stage they look every inch the part, moving together in rhythm, with flowing costumes, subtle lighting and expressive choreography, their faces masks of concentration or calm.

Kathryn Brentwoods, one of the group’s dance teachers, said the skills required to perform a dance piece from scratch in such a short time tend to act directly on the needs and fears of the participants.

She said: “The programme is structured, very disciplined – they must be in on time, concentrate in class, and we don’t compromise on the rules. They need to learn to not talk or fidget, learn self-control, and to think before they act. This comes as a shock.”

Many will have problems with intimacy, personal space, touching and being touched from their experiences, barriers which are broken down by dance moves such as lifting and catching each other.

“We found we have to build up slowly to physical contact. We have to be clear about what is good touching and what isn’t. But they begin to build a lot of skills for life –confidence, negotiation, self-control, and teamwork,” she added.

Another of the group, Jaynie, 19, from Nottingham, has been in an open prison since December. “My friend had done it before, recommended it. It’s difficult, but I feel a lot more confident. I’ve learned how to control my anger, especially here when everyone’s a lot younger than me.

“It’s great to socialise with other people, where no one knows about you or why you’re here,” she said. “It’s nice that they can look at what were doing without disapproving of what we’ve done. You’re here on a clean slate.”

Ruth, 27, from North Wales, said: “The staff are really good with you and treat you well, better than the screws.

“I’ve learnt to get along with people really quickly. I’m quite turned into myself as a person, but I’ve got over that. It’s a place where everyone can be themselves. I love it.”

She hopes to go to college to study “something physical,” while one previous participant went on to study at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance.

Dance United director, Rob Lynden, said the intense focus on the three-week project and discouraging talking about their backgrounds helped draw a line under their past.

He said: “It is designed to take them away from what is expected of them, where they are expected to be belligerent, problematic, where they expect to fail. Instead we can put them in a place where they can succeed.”

A Manchester University evaluation of the course found “a substantial positive impact with large numbers of participants,” and that almost three-quarters of participants re-engaged with education or employment, and reported better relationships in their personal lives.

Dance United, along with projects such as that run by Birmingham Youth Offending Team, are among the few organisations that have tried a new tack which McAleavy hopes will help cut the “alarming” rate of reoffending and high rates of self-harm among women in custody.

He said: “What we need is a much more calm and collected view about this, instead of a moral panic and media frenzy.”

“Undoubtedly people’s lives are blighted by youth crime. But question is this: will a 300 per cent increase in custody tackle youth crime? No, it will make it worse, because incarceration is strongly linked to further offending. Let’s have a debate about this and look for something that actually works.”

A common perception is that female offending is rising. Last month’s Ministry of Justice report, Women and the Criminal Justice System, fuelled headlines raging over “ladette culture.” The statistics showed a 22 per cent rise of crime over five years by girls under 18, with 251,000 arrests in 2006-07.

But this shouldn’t be taken at face value, CfBT’s Tony McAleavy said: “There is no hard evidence for radical seismic shift in girls’ offending behaviour,” he said. “The issue is to do with the response to crime.

“More girls are in court and going to custody, but the report shows this is because fewer girls are getting dealt with by reprimands or cautions. It’s the response to crime that is changing, not the criminal behaviour.”

A more heavy-handed approach by the courts has seen a 297 per cent increase in custodial sentences for girls between 1992 and 2006, compared to a 56 per cent average for under-18s of both sexes.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, agreed that earlier interventions by youth workers had led to higher numbers: “We don’t draw any strong conclusions from the caseload data,” he said.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, 2009]



Barbed graphic design studio
Barbed graphic design studio. Credit: Barbed/Howard League

A groundbreaking project in which prison inmates run a design company from behind bars in an effort to reduce reoffending rates is under threat of closure.

Barbed, a graphic design studio based at HMP Coldingley in Bisley, Surrey, was set up by charity the Howard League for Penal Reform in October 2005 to train and employ inmates as graphic designers.

Launched with £100,000 funding, Barbed is the first attempt to run a commercially viable social enterprise within a prison and supports 60 per cent of its costs through client work.

Clients include many organisations within the field, such as the Butler Trust, Prison Education Trust and the Howard League, but also NHS trusts, legal firm Clifford Chance and even Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But according to a report seen exclusively by The Big Issue, the project, housed within the Category C secure prison, may close because of lack of support.

Andrew Neilson, assistant director of policy at the Howard League, who oversees Barbed, told The Big Issue: “The project was never set up to run forever, but neither the Prison Service nor the government have showed any interest in the idea as a pilot of how real, skilled labour in prisons could work.”

Report author Penny Green, professor of criminology at King’s College London, was tasked by the Howard League to independently assess Barbed’s progress. Her findings, due for publication next month, detail a catalogue of obstacles that have undermined the credibility of the project.

Many of the setbacks are directly linked to prison overcrowding: inmates trained for six months are moved without warning to other prisons to make way for new arrivals, or moved after being re-categorised up to category B or down to category D open prisons. Studio staff are prevented from working by security lock-downs, and working hours have also been cut to around five hours a day.

Barbed staff are also paid a real, above-minimum wage from which tax and National Insurance contributions are deducted. To further emulate the costs of life on the outside, a third of prisoners’ wages is deducted and given to charity.

Barbed’s organisers aimed to introduce skilled work to prisoners who perhaps had no experience of it, complete with a working day, deadlines and the payment of tax to the state as part of the social contract.

But late last year, HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) refused to accept the tax and returned a cheque for £18,000 to the Howard League. A letter from HMRC stated that while prisoners based at open prisons working on day release were liable for tax, those working within more secure prisons were not.

The Ministry Of Justice argued that as prisoners are not under contract for the work they do, they are not employees, and as such cannot be taxed.

This contradiction was described by the Howard League’s Euginia Lolomari as “an anomaly that they recognise, but on which they are unwilling to shift”.

She believes government ministers quail at inmates earning a ‘real’ wage for productive work, as opposed to the token Prison Service wage of between £5 and £30 a week earned by inmates for prison jobs such as laundry and packing – and in particular the legal employment rights it would imply.

She said: “The whole point of the project is to demonstrate that businesses based in prison can work, and that prisoners given a full working day and paid a realistic wage are motivated to produce a good level of skilled work.”

Describing the HMRC’s position as ‘Kafkaesque’, Professor Green’s report states that the future of Barbed and projects like it requires the “urgent resolution” of legal issues surrounding prisoner employment. Reforming prison work would require “a wholesale commitment on the part of the Prison Service, which to date is absent”.

She continues: “Denied a meaningful wage and legal employment rights, prison work, from the prisoner’s perspective, is thus linked more with exploitative punishment than reward, and does little to challenge offending behaviour.”

At HMP Coldingley, the Barbed studio looks much like any other small business office: there are half a dozen Apple Macs, pin-boards cluttered with newspaper clippings, diagrams, and finished work adorns the walls.

Barbed has trained 11 inmates, but this has been reduced to three designers and professional studio manager David Allen after staff were moved to other prisons.

For designer Leon, who is in the last stretch of a five-year sentence, it has been a steep learning curve. The 33-year-old said: “It was tricky getting my head around it, but I really enjoy it. It gives me something to look forward to. When I get out in six months I’m planning to set up a social enterprise design business of my own. It’s given me the skills to do that.”

He criticised much of the prison’s other work training. “You just sit around all day. It’s not actually teaching you skills to get a job with outside,” he said.

Another designer, 48-year-old B, has spent the last five years of his life sentence at Coldingley and is up for parole in April. He said: “Working here has been great for me. It’s been a great distraction to everything out there” – he gestures outside the studio’s partition walls – “and a break from the monotony of it all.

“I’ve learnt skills I can use outside. There were a few guys in here that had never worked a job in their life, so it must have been a great help for them and great experience to keep them out of prison in the future.”

One former inmate who worked on the Barbed project has even gone on to work for the Howard League since his release.

But organisations working in the penal system say that the loss of inventive projects like Barbed is almost certain under new recommendations to build super-prisons.

Critics have warned that Titan prisons mean less staff per prisoner, longer lock-up hours and tighter security, all of which work against organisations trying to run rehabilitation programmes.

Barbed studio manager David Allen described running the studio as both rewarding and frustrating. He said: “People get upset that prisoners are working, but would they rather they were doing nothing and getting angrier and more resentful with society? The effect on the guys has been massively positive. They are enthusiastic and keen to work. In prison, at some point, the punishment has to end and the rehabilitation to begin.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]