Northallerton Young Offenders Institution: Changing Lives from the Inside Out

Working for Guidance Services Ltd. as a ‘Young Person’s Personal Advisor’ I worked alongside the charity SOVA (Supporting Others through Volunteer Action) in the now-demolished Education Wing, helping the lads find work as they approached the end of their sentence and providing them with advice and guidance to help them prepare for life outside the prison system. We prepared CV’s, took part in role playing exercises to help the lads practice their interview skills and negotiated with the Princes’ Trust and sympathetic employers who were prepared to employ young men between the age of 18 -25 who, for whatever reason, had been convicted of a criminal offence.

The disclosure of an offence, usually drug-related, burglary, assault or ‘twocking’ (taking a vehicle without consent), was a difficult barrier to overcome when looking for work and the lads had very little previous work experience or qualifications to demonstrate their employability. Throughout the education programme we would focus on how being open and honest about a criminal conviction and time spent ‘inside’ would improve their chances of finding work. We would also emphasise their physical strength, determination, manual dexterity and the responsibility they felt towards their young families if they had children.

Many of lads who were coming to the end of their sentence occupied cells in ‘C’ Wing and spent much of their free time either in the gym, in education, or repairing mobility scooters in the workshop. They also had access to a library, with books describing real life crime being the most read. They also received visits from family and friends and the atmosphere was more relaxed and less intimidating than in the much larger ‘A’ wing where many of the prisoners new to the prison were accommodated and where tensions sometime ran high. I rarely ventured into the ‘A’ wing as most of the lads in there still had many more months to go before being released. For them education was not a priority.

Before each training session I would have to contact the Duty Officer by radio to confirm where I was going, and who I was with. I would then walk through the low-ceilinged corridors to either A Wing or C Wing to collect the lads from their cells and accompany them to the training rooms. The sessions usually lasted 45 minutes and very rarely were the sessions disrupted by unruly behaviour. One or two were not interested and would sit at the back of the classroom, staring into space rocking backwards and forwards on the plastic chairs. I remember having to check at the end of each lesson that the hard rubber balls found in a PC mouse were all accounted for.  A solid rubber ball when placed in the bottom of a sock could make a dangerous weapon. Similarly we had to count the number of biro pens that were returned as they too, if sharpened, could be used to inflict serious injury. Once all the stationery was returned I would radio through to control that I would be returning the lads to their cells. At the end of each day we would queue up patiently at Reception before handing in our keys and radio and emerging from the staff entrance onto East Road. Fresh air and freedom.

The YOI proved to be a crossroads in the life of many of the lads, one of the last opportunities they had to break free from the cycle of a life of crime. Some of the lads were committed to the education programme. You could see a spark of enthusiasm in their eyes, a willingness to learn and genuine remorse for the offence that they had committed. Some did find work, either polishing floors in office blocks or working as garage mechanics. Sadly others, who preferred the routine, and in some cases the relative safety, of prison life continued to re-offend. A number returned to the prison on more than one occasion and were at risk of becoming institutionalised criminals, perhaps to spend their adult lives at Kirklevington, near Yarm or at Armley Prison in Leeds. For these lads it would be much more difficult to turn their lives around. For some it was already too late.

The lasting memory of my time spent in the prison is the noise. To this day I can still hear the constant clanging of the heavy iron gates, the crackling of the radio, the shouts from the lads and the piercing ring of the alarm followed by the pounding of feet as officers ran along the corridors to sort out a fight. Living so close to the prison I was unable to get the noise out of my head. Having arrived home after work the thick black leather belt which held the radio and a chain of keys provided a constant reminder of the prison when it was either hung on a coat peg in the hallway or hidden away under the bed. Out of sight but seldom out of mind.

Nowadays C4DI is a much quieter place to work, with only the heavy metal doors, barred-windows and exposed ironwork to remind me of how it once used to be. The cargo nets and pool table may have gone but the memories linger.

Over the centuries prison was considered a place of punishment and incarceration. However I found what is now the C4DI building to be one of hope and opportunity. The cells that once housed young men who had made mistakes but were looking forward to a better future now provide accommodation for young men and women who have a vision to make a better future. I would like to think that in some small way we were able to ‘change someone’s life from the inside out’ and that C4DI will continue to do so for many years to come.