Is prison a solution or a problem? How does it feel to have your freedom taken away. Find out at the Festival of Ideas

Jason Hill was a persistent young offender who the courts and Youth Offending Services had given up on.

I want them to feel like a prisoner feels, to just get a taste of it.

Charles Young

He was facing two years in a secure unit when his life suddenly changed. The judge at Woolwich Crown Court decided to revoke the court order and to put him in the hands of Charles Young's London Anti-Crime Education Service.

Since then, he has turned his life around and is now a mentor with Young's project which aims to show young people the reality of prison life and the positive alternatives open to them.

Young will not only be speaking about his work at a Cambridge Festival of Ideas debate on 21st October on whether prison works, but he will also be demonstrating his unorthodox approach to deterring young people from a life of crime at an event on October 22nd.

Young says prison doesn't work for people like Jason and thinks it is more important to prevent criminal behaviour by challenging it with positive role models from an early age.

He should know what he's talking about. He's been there himself. He set up LACES after spending 20 years of his life behind bars. His first conviction was at the age of 12, but it was not until he turned 40 18 years ago when he was up for his 40th conviction that he had “an epiphany”.

He decided to set up LACES and educate young people about the “slippery slope” towards a life spent in and out of prison.

The Home Office-funded project involves going into schools and other settings with a makeshift prison cell and giving young people a dose of what his previous life was like.

He says he aims to tell it like it is so it begins with him sitting in total silence for the first ten minutes and then angrily smashing his chair down in anger and frustration. That's what prison is like 23 hours a day,” he says. “I want them to feel like a prisoner feels, to just get a taste of it.”

He uses his own personal story to drive home the message. He tells his own story to a cellmate who takes off their prison uniform to reveal a different uniform below, such as a police uniform.

“I was never exposed to positive male role models as a kid,” says Charles. “My mum suffered from an emotional disorder which left me feeling very angry inside. It was an anger I needed to control and channel.”

When he was a teenager Charles was a champion swimmer and was also good at athletics, but he did not have any self-belief and he couldn't see where athletics might take him.

“I want to get over to kids that there is more to life than a criminal background. Many are at school and all they get is teachers shouting at them and pointing a finger in their face. To teach respect you have to give it.”

LACES' work also involves a mentoring programme using trained ex-offenders, volunteer police officers and other community members to not only assist in reducing offending behaviour in schools and elsewhere, but services which might also offer job opportunities where none previously existed.

Young is passionate about the work. He has done over 2,000 presentations in the last 18 years and reached out to over 15,000 young people. He claims the programme has deterred over 1290 potential offenders and saved the public £6.23m in criminal damage.

He plans to work with the Metropolitan police and armed forces in the future to offer alternatives to a life of crime. He is keen to broaden this to all sorts of different trades and jobs.

For the 22nd October event he is bringing along two mentors and an ex-gang member who will also talk about their own experiences.

Young feels there is a lack of understanding among policymakers about many young people's daily lives and finds references in the media to “feral youth” unhelpful.

He calls the Government's approach to the summer riots “smoke and mirrors”. LACES was interviewed by Japanese TV about the riots and talked to young people involved. “Their attitude was that there was nothing to do and that stuff was being flashed in their faces. They were angry. The Government doesn't understand that, it doesn't understand having to struggle and that every day things are getting harder. Those kids saw an opportunity. They were angry and they wanted to get back at society and they wanted to be heard, but no one is listening to what they have to say.”

He says policymakers should listen more to youth workers. “It's such a shame they are being cut back as they give their all to help kids. Most of them are these kids. They grew up and became more responsible.”

* The Does prison work? debate takes place at the Judge Business School on 21 October from 6-7.15pm. Other speakers include Professor Lawrence Sherman who will speak about his work with police on devising alternatives to prison; Jennifer Rubin from Rand; and John Podmore, ex-governor of Brixton Prison and a member of the RSA.

How to stay out of prison is on 22 October at the Faculty of Law, Sidgwick Site from 12.30-1.30pm.

Pre-booking is advised.

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