Behind the locked door of a prison cell, a tense and potentially life-threatening event is unfolding. Three young men have taken a fellow inmate hostage and, after punching and kicking him to the ground, are holding him face down on the bed, threatening rape.
It sounds like the plot of a particularly harrowing prison drama – but this footage was recorded by an ITV documentary crew afforded unique access to life behind the imposing walls of Aylesbury prison, one of the UK’s 16 dedicated establishments for young offenders.
The result of their four-month stay is a two-part film that highlights in often uncomfortable detail the challenges presented by the detention of some of the most violent and troubled young offenders in the country.
On this occasion the hostage crisis – sparked by three inmates who wanted to be moved north from Buckinghamshire to be closer to their families – was resolved peacefully. But it was a reminder, as prison governor Kevin Leggett knows all too well, of the pressure cooker environment created when you place hundreds of often angry and violent boys under lock and key. “It’s our job to make sure that the pressure cooker doesn’t boil over,” he says.
It’s no easy feat. Aylesbury houses on average around 420 prisoners aged between 18 and 21. Many have committed serious crimes including rape and murder – a quarter of them “lifers” or serving indeterminate sentences.
For all that, Leggett, a genial Geordie who first worked at Aylesbury as a prison officer in 1988, returning as governor three years ago, is anxious to avoid simplistic labels. “Yes, we have men who are full of testosterone, spoiling for a fight, but we also have men who are wetting the bed, who are constantly anxious about adult contact because they’ve been abused, who have never trusted an adult in their life because they’ve never been given reason to. My staff have to deal with these extremes every day.”
Leggett says that 90 per cent of the trouble in the prison is caused by 10 per cent of the inmates. “But even of the 10 per cent, while some actively want to be disruptive, for others it’s because they don’t know any other way.
“It’s how they’ve been brought up – they can’t communicate. They don’t set out to start a fight, but they have no other way of communicating. So something as simple as someone stepping in front of them at the ping-pong table can set them off. A lot of the way they behave is about how they used to live on the outside. We have to unpick a lot of behaviour.”
Background, then, is the key factor in their detention? “Well, the criminologists will tell you it is,” Leggett says. “And of course there are risk factors – poverty, social deprivation, bad parenting. But some of the boys come from well-to-do families, so it’s not simple. There are so many complex issues – social, domestic, psychological. Many of the prisoners have mental health issues – our mental health team keeps very busy.”
Given that so many of the prisoners have clear psychological problems, is prison really the best place for them? Not least because of reoffending. Forty per cent of those prisoners at Aylesbury who were released in the year up to March 2011 having served sentences of 12 months or more went on to reoffend.
Leggett’s response is simple. “The courts have made a decision on detention – that’s a done deal when they come to us. But if it was all about punishment we would have a lock-down situation and that’s not what we’re about and it’s not what anybody should be about. Our job is to find out what is the best approach to dealing with them, and the ultimate goal is to rehabilitate. We owe them, and the victims of their crimes and society, that.”
To that end all inmates participate in courses designed to improve their life skills – from numeracy and literacy to vocational qualifications in mechanics, as well as taking gym qualifications and even Samaritans courses, where they are trained to act as “listeners” to other prisoners. “Sometimes when I present certificates, they get very emotional – they’ve never succeeded at anything before, they’ve never had that before. And that’s very rewarding.”
One wonders whether Justice Minister Chris Grayling has these courses in his sightline, though: recently he spoke of his desire to enforce a “no-frills” prison policy, in which satellite television is jettisoned in favour of drab uniforms and a more spartan regime.
Leggett is diplomatic, although you sense that inwardly he’s bristling. “My official line is that I don’t have a view, as I’m a civil servant and I do what I’m told. But I can tell you what happens here, which is that we don’t have Sky, and not everyone has a television, and we operate an incentive scheme in terms of behaviour – not just on televisions but on access to visits, and what money they can spend.”
Drugs remain a perennial problem, although Leggett believes he’s winning the battle. “When I came here, people were throwing packages over the walls and prisoners would hook them up from the windows. So we placed mesh on all the cell windows and that has made a difference. Now, I’d say the drug issue is not significant.”
He is equally keen to downplay the role of gangs in prison life. “It’s not like America where they’re walking round with red scarves hanging out their back pockets,” he insists. “There are people who come in here who are in gangs, but it’s not a massive issue for us. What tends to be more of an issue is wing loyalty. Recently we had a scuffle because someone from one wing used showers that are deemed to belong to another wing.”
This downplaying of the role of gangs is, it must be said, contradicted by the inmates featured in the documentary. One says it is more violent in jail than on the streets he left behind. “Here everyone from the street is thrown in together.” Fighting, another prisoner adds, helps the time pass more quickly.
At the vanguard of this, of course, are the prison officers, of whom a number at Aylesbury – 35 of the 128 – are women. “I don’t differentiate, I judge in terms of whether someone is a good prison officer or not,” says Leggett. “But female officers can be a calming influence absolutely, and they can bring something else to the job,” he says. “Some of these men will listen to women in a way they won’t to men. Conversely some of these young men don’t know how to relate to women and it’s an important step for them to do that.”
Some prisoners, though, don’t differentiate at all, meaning that in recent years a number of female officers have been subjected to physical attacks – not sexual assaults, but punched or kicked. This, says Leggett, is a new development. “It always seemed to be the case that female staff were never assaulted, but in the past couple of years that has changed. I don’t think it’s a prison problem. It would appear to be a society issue.”
By far the hardest thing for the officers, he says, is confronting a prisoner death, especially if it’s self-inflicted. “It is a horrible thing when someone is there one day and not the next, and it has the most enormous ripple effect. I have seen staff absolutely devastated when a prisoner takes his own life.” They can feel equally desolate when a promising young man goes on to reoffend. “We don’t always get through. We fail to spot things that could have helped them, or that could have improved their chances of not reoffending. And when that happens you think, ‘Could I have done better?’ You do take it personally. That said, by the time they leave here, I do think the vast majority are changed for the good.”
Her Majesty’s Prison – Aylesbury begins on Monday at 9:00pm on ITV