Big interview: The view from the inside - Charles Young, founder, London Anti-Crime Education Scheme

| 31 August 2005

In 1993, Charles Young was in a TV room in a prison in Kent, watching a news item about an ex-offender in Scotland who had come out of prison and was talking to a group of young adults. He says: "I went back to my cell and I realised that I could do that."

Young certainly had the necessary experience. He had spent 22 years in institutions including Belmarsh high-security prison. He was 12 when he received his first conviction, for criminal damage, and was 14 when he was given his first custodial sentence - three years for shoplifting.

He subsequently served a number of sentences, for various crimes including robbery and fraud.

Young had nine weeks of his current sentence left, so he wrote to the head teacher of his son's school asking if he could come and speak to the pupils about his experiences of life in prison. He also applied to the prison authorities to take a few props with him when he left, including his prison clothes, and eating and drinking equipment.

By the time he was released in September, Young still hadn't received a reply to his letter but, undeterred, he went to see the head teacher, Colin Yardley, who was then in charge of Thomas Tallis School in Blackheath, south London. Yardley said he had lost the letter but that he was interested in the proposal. Young went to a police station to collect a few more props and take some pictures of police cells. In February 1994, he made his first presentation.

It was a success, and Yardley gave Young a reference. "If it wasn't for Colin Yardley giving me that opportunity, I wouldn't have pursued it," says Young. He set up the London Anti-Crime Education Scheme (Laces) and has been talking to young people about crime ever since. "I do a two-hour presentation about the 'slippery slope'," he explains. "The teachers I speak to say they don't know how the kids can sit there for as long as they do."

Young's method is simple. He uses his props, his experience and his unquestionable passion for his subject to make young people understand what prison is all about. "It is boring in prison. It is shit. It is crap," he says. "I just be myself and I'm angry. I really do give them my all, and it is their choice whether they want to listen."

As well as working in schools, Young has also given talks in Feltham Young Offender Institution, and worked with Newham Youth Offending Team on its robbery programme. As part of this 15-week scheme for young people convicted of an offence such as robbery or shoplifting, Young told the offenders what it is like to be in prison.

He speaks about the negative impact prison had on his life, as well as its sheer unpleasantness. He says his family suffered because of his time inside, and that he feels he has lost a large part of his life, although he understands why young people get into crime.

"I wasn't taught to be a decent human being," he says. "I was left to my own devices and, when you don't get anything from your parents, you turn to your friends. You listen to your friends and you want to look cool.

I didn't realise how it would alter my life. When I came out I didn't have any qualifications, so I just continued living the street life."

He believes it is the same for young offenders today. "If they are not earning money straight away when they get out, they go back into the same ways. It is the same old story: you can't get a job if you've got a criminal record."

As well as educating young people, Laces allows Young to make an honest living, helping others avoid the mistakes he made. "I feel 16 inside, but I'm 52 years old," he says. "I want to make the best of what time I have left."

FYI

- Charles Young set up the London Anti-Crime Education Scheme in 1993 after being released from prison

- He works with young people in all settings, from schools or youth groups to youth offending teams and prisons

- The sessions can be small workshops or larger presentations to an audience of young people

- Young is hoping to expand the scope of his scheme, and is looking for other ex-offenders who might be interested in helping with the work. Call 020 8308 0055 for more details.

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