mechanised
[beneath the rule a country hides]

Saturday, October 11th, 2003

Time:10:53 pm.
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........#7 – Youth Treatment Centre, South [Winter 2005]


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I recently visited a derelict Youth Treatment Centre (in effect a high-security children’s prison). Opened in the 1970s, its remit was the incarceration and rehabilitation of adolescents, some of whom were as young as ten. All of its inmates had committed serious offences, and all were classified as extremely disturbed or mentally ill. In the last few years, all such sites have been wound down – rapidly superseded by Secure Treatment Centres – and this particular unit has been closed for well over a decade…

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The entire complex is circumscribed by an immense metallic fence; and from the perimeter seems genuinely menacing… (visiting in the depth of winter only heightens the unease). Once the fence has been negotiated, however, the reality is far more mundane, if no less bleak. The centre essentially amounts to a series of houses, around which are scattered various amenities such as classrooms and gymnasia.

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Remarkably, given it’s been derelict for ten years, all the windows are intact, and there are almost no instances of graffiti. (Upon entering a room, the only footprints I saw were those of an animal.).

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The houses are perhaps the most interesting aspect of the site, though sadly there remain few traces of former inmates. In one room I stumbled across some cards and decorations, in another some paperwork and clothes – but very little else. The site has been cleared extremely thoroughly, with most of the rooms containing nothing but light bulbs and curtains.

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Elsewhere on the site, there are workshops (projects still lie unfinished on benches), and perhaps most impressively of all, a gymnasium and basketball court. It is only really in these areas of the prison that it’s possible to forget where you are. There are even moments when it feels just like a school or leisure centre. It is only when you look more closely – at the spiked gables or grated skylights – that you realise there’d be no escape.

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Paperwork

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It was only towards the end of my visit that I discovered some paperwork – a small timetable and some notes from a treatment group. The timetable was reasonably straightforward – detailing classes such as Geography, Computing and Horticulture. The notes from the group, however, were of far more interest. Written by one of the staff, they offered a brief analysis of five of the Centre’s inmates.

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Of Nathan, the group leader wrote the following: "Continues to split the staff group, especially around going home. Also continues to live in a fantasy world. Appears to be presenting well in the Skills Centre, but on his return to the house, he poisons everyone.” ….The group leader later adds: “can have a gold tooth if parents prepared to pay for it”.

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In terms of treatment, the courses most readily prescribed were counselling, social skills training and anger management, although none appear to have met with much success. Insubordination and suppression was the main dynamic, a constant battle of wills involving sanctions, violence and deception.

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As expected, the outside world appears only sparingly in the reports. Robert was granted permission to visit his parents in hospital, Adam to spend time with his birth mother – but the focus was overwhelmingly on prison life. Similarly, there is very little sense of the inmate’s thoughts or experiences. As in most institutions, it’s the voices of staff that predominate – the views of inmates found only in graffiti and minor acts of vandalism.

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The entire complex is genuinely unnerving. The buildings are exceptionally dark and cramped – an imagined assailant lurking behind each door. (several times I found myself wielding my torch as I rounded a corner!) . Even in those rooms facing the sun, the sense of claustrophobia was overwhelming. Unlike in asylums, where you at least have airing courts and day rooms, the architecture here is punitive – specifically designed to humiliate and oppress. I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been for the inmates.

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Outside, the sense of restriction eased only slightly. Wherever you turn, the enormous fence looms large on the horizon – while beneath you, there is rarely anything other than concrete and asphalt. (It’s almost as if the complex has been designed to replicate a rundown housing estate).

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In terms of layout, the ground floor of each house is given over to several communal areas, while bedrooms and cells dominate the upper storeys. In each house, there are also some rooms for violent inmates - the doors to which are at least twenty centimetres thick. In each and every room, there are also bars across the windows – a dismal view rendered even more unbearable by a matrix of steel. Indeed, even with the door open and my exit planned, the sense of confinement genuinely made me feel ill.

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…And then there is the fact the centre was designed to incarcerate children – the sense of any last vestige of childhood being destroyed. (The extreme uneasiness of finding bedrooms with bars on the window).. In asylums it is the loss of sanity that is so poignant, here it is simply youth.

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