Jason Hill, 22, used to earn £3,000 a week from selling heroin and crack cocaine, an income he topped up by burgling houses. Four years ago in Woolwich Crown Court in south-east London, as he faced yet another burglary charge, the judge referred him to an ex-con for mentoring in an attempt to steer him away from a life of crime.
The ex-con in question was Charles Young, who runs LACES (London Anti-Crime Education Scheme)
With his help, Hill put his criminal behaviour behind him, turned his life around and has been out of trouble ever since.
“Once you become what they call a career criminal, your mind will never change,” says Hill, who now lives with his girlfriend and their two kids, and is in full-time employment loading lorries. “But now, if I think I’m going to commit a crime, I’ll ring Charlie and he’ll come round and make me sit and think. I owe him a lot.”
Charles young grew up in south-east London within a large and not particularly happy family, and spent time in care homes.
“My parents never pushed me to fulfill my potential and I had no one to steer me,” explains the six-foot-tall 60-year-old. “I was a fast swimmer and I think, with the right encouragement, I could have been Olympic standard. But that didn’t happen. Young people need someone to channel their energy or it can turn into something else, most commonly aggression. Then they start bunking off school, smoking weed, thinking they’re cool.”
By his teens, Charles was committing petty crime and taking drugs. Between the ages of 19 to 40, he served 15 years in jail, having clocked up 40 convictions for robbery, fraud and burglary. He came out vowing never to go back in, and decided that he wanted to help youngsters see that prison isn’t worth losing your life and liberty for.
“It’s a cliché, but I don’t want them to do what I did,” he says. “I can see myself in them at that age. I want young people to see that a life of crime isn’t glamorous or fun. It will end up in a prison sentence sooner or later, and you can’t get noticed in prison because no one cares—the world isn’t watching when you’re behind bars.”
And Charles’ passion seems to be paying off. LACES was recently put at the top of a list of “resources” for tackling criminal behaviour by the Youth Justice Board, and Charles is hoping he may once again be able to attract funding— LACES was awarded £20,000 from the Home Office a few years ago, the only financial support it’s ever had. “It doesn’t seem right that what we do works and is so much cheaper and more effective than prison, but no one wants to support it financially,” Charles points out. “It doesn’t make sense, and meanwhile the prison population just keeps on increasing.”
Over the last 20 years, the UK prison population has almost doubled and now stands at 85,000.
Around a third of criminals reoffend within three years, not least because finding work with a record is very difficult.
Charles takes his eye-catching presentation to schools, colleges, youth clubs, excluded pupil projects and even the navy. He assembles an eight-foot-by-12-foot mock prison cell on stage, with a loo, table and bunk bed. At first he just sits there for ten minutes while the perplexed audience watches. Then suddenly Charles leaps up and screams and shouts, holding his head in frustration, as he conveys his overwhelming anger and boredom at being locked up for 23 hours every day. He has a cellmate, usually one of the young men he’s helped. Young’s methods are unorthodox—he uses foul language and doesn’t apologise for it.
“That’s what they’ll hear in prison—shouting, swearing, threats, screaming, with the backdrop always the same: locks being opened and closed, keys jangling, footfalls on the landings, men crying at night.”
He invites the toughest-looking kid onto the stage to fight, then offers him an arm wrestle. He always wins. “You’ll be challenged to fight all the time, so you might as well get used to it.” He’s holding a hot plastic cup full of steaming coffee. “This is one of the most dangerous weapons in a prison,” he explains. “One second, and it’s in your face, scalding you. No one will care. Still fancy a criminal career?”
Some of the young men who walked in sniggering are ashen-faced when they leave, their bravado all gone.
“At first, they think I’m some kind of hero,” says Charles. “By the end, they can see that criminals are idiots and prison is a kind of hell.”
But does it have any lasting effect?
Analysis by Mango Communications in 2010 showed that between 1995 and 2005 Charles made 2,000 presentations, reaching 15,000 young people. The analysis also showed that LACES deterred over 1,290 young ex-offenders from reoffending during the ten-year period, saving the taxpayer around £6.3m in criminal damages and the criminal justice system another £1.2m. Of a large group of young robbers in Newham, London, just two reoffended after seeing Young’s presentation. He also mentors individuals as he did with Jason Hill, for which he isn’t paid.
Kirsten Gibbs is a south-London businesswoman who’s working with Charles to help make his project more commercially viable in the absence of funding. He now has a website and is marketing himself more efficiently, with plans to target 800 London schools with his presentation.
“I’ve never seen anyone control a room like Charles does,” she claims. “Stand-up comics could learn an awful lot from him."
Watch Charles on the BBC:
Tyrone bailey, 27, was sent to Feltham Young Offender Institution for 18 months for robbery when he was 17.
He came out an angry young man and was frequently in fights. A resident of Greenwich, Tyrone has known Charles Young for many years, and was helped by him throughout his twenties when the older man intervened and regularly spoke for him in court. Tyrone, who’s now in a committed relationship and a stepfather to one child, went to college to study construction skills last year and has been employed since then.
“Charlie has helped me so much,” he says. “I listen to him because what he says comes from experience. He understands where people like me are coming from. I had an altercation with a neighbour recently, and Charlie talked me round to seeing sense. He made me think about how far I’d come from my old life, so I went round and apologised. It felt good to emerge from the situation as the bigger person.”
Charles believes that young people can’t learn respect unless it’s shown to them. He doesn’t want mentors to be soft—he’s in favour of sensible discipline—but he badly wants to see an acceptance of the idea that all young people have value.
“As a schoolboy, I saw a young kid get whipped after resisting the cane,” he recalls. “The modern equivalent is a teacher jabbing a finger angrily into a child’s face. All that does is make them feel more hopeless and useless.”
Aside from charles’ ambitions for LACES, he has one other...
“I should have swum competitively as a young man,” he explains. “So, as an older man, I’d now like to get an expert to calculate my swimming speed, making allowances for my age, and to tell me whether I would have made it to Olympic standard. It would be bittersweet if it came out as a yes, as it’s all too late now, but at least I’d know that I had the ability. It’s so important for young people to recognise their potential and to use it. It’s such a waste otherwise.”