During a recent conversation with Mother Soapbox, I told her that part of my reason for writing this blog is to raise awareness of the issues that young people in deprived areas can face. My Mum, subtle as ever, retorted “well, you haven’t really done that”. I flicked back quickly – Oz Girl, Bundle, complaints about the Coalition, demonstrations, U-turns, political policy and the shocking inequality amongst monkeys, but nothing that really provides a window into why I care so much about these issues. So here we go, the following poem describes a common and realistic set of circumstances that might lead a young person to having to meet someone like me on a weekly basis with the aim of “reducing their risk”. You may amused or bemused to hear that I’ve used some slang that’s probably not becoming of a thirty-one year-old, husband and father of one from the suburbs, however there will come a time when my son will be mortified by such a thing so I need to get this in quickly!
Dad’s come home from the pub, he’s smashed
Little Man in the corner watching Mum get bashed
There’s no love at home for him attach
Couldn’t make it at school, his education dashed
The Youth Club closed down when the funding collapsed
The kids sit on the block, and futures hatch.
There’s no way out from the towers of flats
Until an Older comes and Little Man gets gassed
He goes to the corner to earn some cash
But here’s a rival, a knife fight and a face slashed
Now the cops know him, in a minute, in a flash
To this life of crime his life becomes lashed
The flat gets raided and they find his stash
Looking bad for Little Man, we’re talking crack not hash
So he’s whipped off to Feltham and arrives with a splash
His rep will get high if he keeps acting rash.
The day comes when he gets back to the street
His rep’s already there, didn’t wait for release
For the rest though life didn’t cease
Money, power, respect, for the others increased
Little Man needs his patch back, no time for peace
So he picks up his thing and starts making P’s
His life goes down that familiar route
Money to make and people to shoot
No education, no certificates to produce
Will this ride end all too soon?
In the game of life they tell him “you lose”
But he’s got a chain, new tracksuit and Nike shoes
Money and power, women too
So Police and Youth Workers can’t give him a clue
Little Man already knows exactly what to do
He plans to change when he hits twenty-two
By then he’ll have made enough from dealing food
He thinks he’ll relax and live without working through.
This really is a typical set of circumstances. Practically every person I have supervised as a Probation Officer, young or adult offender has come from a background with significant difficulties. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are a minority. I have supervised hundreds of offenders since I took employment at London Probation, the number who are from stable, affluent, supportive backgrounds, I can count on one hand.
So yes, it is a typical story, problems at home, school, in the community or all three, low self-esteem, little control over one’s life, lack of opportunity and support to progress. But for some young people there is a way out, a way to get fast money, power and respect. They may be offered a way in by the gangster who lives in the flat upstairs, first storing drugs and weapons for him and running errands, then selling drugs down the road – “bring the money back here and you get your cut”. That young person becomes connected and others become wary of him, he starts to feel their fear and his self esteem rises. He wants more so starts skipping school to focus on his extra-curricular activities; he wants to impress his boss so he sells more drugs. Part of his responsibilities includes protecting their income, so if someone attempts to move in to steal the customers he is expected to respond with violence. He must continue to prove himself through violence and petty squabbles with long-term foes for which no-one can remember the reason, become deadly. Prison no longer becomes a deterrent, more a rite of passage, a place to “earn stripes”. The more he plunges himself into the gangster lifestyle, the more money, power and respect he can earn and so the risks become bigger, prison sentences longer or attacks more deadly. I’m not talking about adult men, this is not Goodfellas or Scarface, I’m talking about children, 12, 13, 14 year-olds with access to guns, class A drugs and all the money, power and respect that goes with them. Lots of young people have “a plan”, they’ll do it for X amount of time but the prizes can be addictive and difficult to give up until forced. For many of them the risk is that they will have done themselves so much damage by the time they want to change that their options are extremely limited. The other possibility of course, is that they won’t live to see that day.
This is one set of circumstances, there are millions of others, equally as tragic, that lead to a young person stepping through the doors of a Youth Offending Team.