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Dr Alan Billings

Dr Alan Billings

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Many years ago I visited a Young Offender Institution called Lancaster Farms, a prison for those aged 15-18. It has since become a Category C prison for adults.

The governor showed me around and then took me to a canteen area to meet one of the prison officers who had formed a rare relationship with one of the detainees.


The officer, a big man in his early sixties, was sitting at a table apart from the others, together with the young man. The lad was a thin and pale, seventeen year old, who was inside because of a history of violence. His way of resolving any dispute, however minor, was to lash out.

As I approached the table, I could see that the prison officer was holding the hands of the young man and showing him how to use a knife and fork.

We got chatting. The officer explained that Shaun had never used cutlery before. Naively, I asked the boy how he managed to eat at home.

He said that his family had never eaten at regular meal times and sometimes he and his younger siblings had gone through a whole day with nothing to eat at all. When they did eat, they had pizzas or fish and chips and used their hands. He had never had a knife and fork and so struggled in the canteen with sausage and mash. His father was a violent man, often drunk, who frequently slapped and punched both their mother and the children.

The prison officer said that he regarded it as his duty to teach basic social skills when they were lacking otherwise that would be yet another hurdle for the young men to get over on release, one more thing to make them angry and frustrated.

The reason I call this to mind is to remind myself of two things, two things that the Violence Reduction Unit helps to address.

The first and most obvious is that by the time people come into contact with the police and the criminal justice system, they are often as much a victim as an offender, as much sinned against as sinning. Shaun inflicted real harm on others, yet was himself the victim of the same kind of violent  behaviour. Locking him up risked making him even more angry, even more damaged.

And second, a large part of the reason for Shaun’s offending, his violence, was because this was the behaviour he had learnt all through his early years. Violence was normal, male behaviour in his family. As he himself put it, his father didn’t explain what he wanted, he just hit them if they didn’t work it out.

If we want to reduce or stop violence, we are going to have to find ways of helping people like Shaun much earlier in their lives or at moments in their later lives when they want to live differently.

By chance, the prison officer had realised that Shaun was open to learning something. We call it the teachable moment.