Prison’s just what a young yob needs: structure and discipline

As Learco Chindamo is about to be released claiming to be reformed, Harriet Sergeant finds jail is also working wonders on her hoodlum friend Tuggy Tug.

Chindamo was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Philip Lawrence (Reuters)

‘Hari, I am in prison, call me in a hot minute.” I was standing in a garden centre when I got the message — an unlikely one for a middle-aged, middle-class woman to receive while choosing a rose bush. Tuggy Tug is the leader of a Brixton gang whom I befriended two years ago. Now he had been arrested for stealing mobile phones. He had just turned 18 and this was his first time “in a big man’s prison”. His voice turned desperate: “Why aren’t you picking up your phone, Hari?”

My heart sank. Like half of all prisoners under the age of 25, Tuggy Tug has been in care. Despite the £2.5 billion the government spends on the care system, nobody had got him employment or training. Now it sounded as if he had graduated from one expensive and failing institution into another: 80% of prisoners under 25 reoffend within 12 months of getting out of prison, where it costs £38,000 a year to keep them.

How effective is prison? Very, according to Learco Chindamo, who, aged 15, fatally stabbed the head teacher Philip Lawrence. In press reports last week Chindamo said that being in jail had transformed him. After serving 14 years of a life sentence and on the verge of being released, he claimed to be a reformed character who wanted only to live a “quiet and decent life”. Might Tuggy Tug’s experience of being locked up turn out to be as positive?

I phoned the prison to arrange a visit. The line remained engaged. I tried the main switchboard. No it was not broken, said the operator, just busy. “It’s a terrible system,” she added. Crusher, a former armed robber who helps me with research and had been at the same jail, shook his head and said of Tuggy Tug: “He’s got a mouth on him. They’ll be taking him down in all different ways. And he’s only little.”

I began to ring 5-10 times a day. After four days a woman picked up. She denied knowledge of Tuggy Tug. Sometimes they were turned away at the gate, she added, and bused elsewhere. No, she had no idea where. I begged her to look again. Surely he could not just disappear. I felt like a Russian trying to track down a relative in the gulag. “There’s nothing here,” she said. “It is like he does not exist.”

Unlike in the gulag, I could write to the prison governor, who apologised for my “visitor’s experience”. Shortly after, Crusher got through and arranged a visit. Tuggy Tug had magically appeared.
It was not the end of the ordeal. In the prison visitors’ centre, we stood in queues mystified by the system. What items, for example, could we leave for Tuggy Tug? I was not the only one confused. In front of me, a retired couple in matching chinos were almost in tears. “But he has to have shower slippers,” they said to the prison officer. Their minds boggled at a life without shower slippers — never mind the soap box and framed family photograph the officer now rejected. By the time it came to the mouth search for drugs, I opened mine without a murmur.

In the hall, the prison officer looked down his list, then pursued his lips. “Never heard of him. Are you sure he’s in this prison?” Beyond, at a low table, grinning fit to burst, sat Tuggy Tug.

I had expected to find him flattened by a system that had defeated me. I had underestimated the desperation of his previous existence. Tuggy Tug now glowed with happiness and health.

Yes, like any boy new to boarding school, the first days had been trying. Three guards had sat on him. He had been put into solitary. Then he had to prove himself to the other inmates. He explained: “My rating was this low before,” his hand hovered just off the floor. He beamed: “Now it’s high, fam.”

That was not his only achievement. He had a job in the kitchen and was doing an NVQ in catering. Before he went to prison, charmed by his brightness and enthusiasm, I had tried to find Tuggy Tug a job. Now he had one. “All that time I was trying to find work on the outside,” he said, “and I get it in prison!”

He was also using the gym. He bent forward so I could feel his pecs. He described his day with pride — an hour in the gym then down to the kitchen to work, followed by study and a game of ball before bang-up. He had, he said in wonder, started to read books, well, “comic-like books”, he amended.

This new order extended to his cell. The first night he noticed the wall was covered “with old bogeys”. He had persuaded a prison officer to have it repainted. He then charmed polish out of a cleaner to make his floor shine and an air freshener for when his cellmate used the toilet. “It’s looking real nice now,” he said with satisfaction.

He contrasted his ordered and productive days with his old life. Outside he had been afraid all the time, “Every day was a battle, man,” he complained.

He had been worried about the police and rival gangs. Home was a “poxy little room” in a hostel with no cooking facilities. He had no family to miss. He was frequently lonely and hungry.

Now he wanted for nothing. “You can live on £10 a week here easy,” he said. He was well fed: “All this protein,” he said with relish. He smoked the occasional spliff and he even liked the prison officers. He pointed to the massive, Shrek-like men with bald heads dotted around the room. “They are fair, man. That one,” he nodded at a frankly terrifying individual, “he’s a good officer.”

His attitude puzzled me until I realised this was Tuggy Tug’s first experience of spending time with adult males. His teachers, social workers, probation officer were all women. Outside, he was on edge, constantly having to prove himself to other young men. The hierarchy of prison life allowed him to relax. He thrust his jaw out at us: “Feel that,” he said proudly. I tickled his chin. It was baby soft. “There is something there,” persisted Tuggy Tug. “Prison is turning you into the real big man,” Crusher said.

Despite all that money spent on Tuggy Tug by the state, only now is he receiving what the majority of teenage boys need to become successful adults — discipline, structure and a purpose.

Will the effect last once he leaves? Unless I find him a job, it is unlikely. Crusher said, “From prison you are on a train, all your things in a plastic bag, everyone looking at you, no money and nowhere to live. I was out robbing the very next day.”

After seeing Tuggy Tug’s experience, I would not get rid of prisons. But what about blowing up those institutions that have put him into one?

Sunday Times
Published 11 July 2011

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