Archives for January 2009

Why it's important to hear from offenders, whatever their background

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Raphael Rowe | 17:06 UK time, Thursday, 15 January 2009

I find it interesting that when a programme features predominantly black boys people automatically assume it's intrinsically linked to the black community.

It doesn't matter if that person they perceive to be black is in fact mixed race such as myself, of black Caribbean and white English origin. Most including the black community see me as black when in fact I consider that an insult to my mother who is not and played an important role in my life. But I gave up correcting them many years ago.

I wonder if the new president of America, Barack Obama, who too is mixed race, feels the same?

In my last programme Jailed for a Knife, four of the perpetrators I interviewed were black and one was white but that doesn't automatically make it a black issue. The issue was teenagers and knives. Is it fair to say that most knife crimes are committed by young black boys? Or that most of the teenagers that have died have been black? Those statistics are not readily available, but do we need them? You only have to look at the snapshots of the young men's faces printed in papers to see there's some truth in the argument.

What I wonder is, if the programme had featured four white teenagers and one black teenager would there be the reverse reaction?

Regarding the racial representation in the programme, as I indicated in the programme, I didn't speak to these young offenders on the basis of their race or where they came from. I spoke to them for their insight on why teenage boys and at times girls, are carrying knives. I wanted to meet young people at the heart of this debate - to challenge them about their behaviour, to throw light onto what had led to their crimes and to show other youngsters, who might be tempted to carry a knife, the consequences of doing so.

It was also important that I spoke to young offenders who are current prisoners, not former offenders who committed their crimes years ago. Peer pressure and recognition is a key aspect of the knife environment - the young men had to have an authenticity, if other young people are to take notice and listen to their testimony.

All of these young men put themselves forward as being willing to take part in a programme. In terms of the offenders included in the final programme they were there on the basis of their crime and sentence. It was important we got a range of offences and experiences to show how knife crime is varied in its nature. In no way were the offenders chosen on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

I was struck by the power of the young men's testimonies and how they came across as thoughtful articulate young men - quite the opposite of the stereotypical hoodie / thug which is often portrayed. We felt it was important that these voices - irrespective of race - should be heard and that their articulate interviews shouldn't be discounted either on the basis of race.

My aim for the programme was for other young people to hear the real voices and experiences of people like them, young men who lived in the 'real world' who could speak directly to them. This seems to have struck a chord with the audience as, at this point, more than 2300 requests have been made by schools, youth groups, police officers and prisons for a copy of the programme to be used in their discussions with other young people. So it looks as if the testimonies of the five young offenders have a real chance of making a lasting difference.

Knife offenders learn too late

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Raphael Rowe | 18:54 UK time, Monday, 12 January 2009

The offenders I spoke to for Jailed for a Knife are serving a long time for knife offences, including murder. But none of them had believed they would use the knife they carried and they all claimed they had carried it for protection.

"Basically if I'd been attacked by people and they come at me with a knife as well if I've got a knife and just say alright, they're obviously gonna think twice about attacking me," one of the young men told me.

"If I didn't have a knife they'd think 'oh there's three of us, one of him, we can take him'. If they think 'oh there's three of us and he's got a knife', they're gonna think about it more; they're not gonna wanna get themselves hurt, even though I probably wouldn't even have used it on them," he added.

When asked why he carried a knife if he didn't intend to use it, the offender said:
"For protection, obviously I'd get it out if I was attacked and say 'alright come on then', that kind of thing, but I wouldn't wanna use it on someone intentionally, like intentionally go up to someone and use it."

The young man he stabbed and killed did not have a knife.In fact none of the knife offenders I interviewed were being threatened with a knife or any other weapon at the time they killed or wounded their victim. The offenders found it difficult to accept that the knife they carried was an offensive weapon rather than defensive.

This belief that brandishing a knife would deter attack is just one of the contradictions the young offenders expressed. Whilst they knew it was illegal to carry a knife, they told me they did not take the threat of the law seriously. Some said they were more concerned about the threat from other teenagers than the police.

It's not often that the prison service allows a journalist into a young offenders' institution to film interviews with teenagers that have committed such violent offences, but such is the concern about the numbers of teenagers carrying and using knives that every effort is being made to break the cycle of one teenager picking up a knife to defend himself from others carrying them.

In the cases of those interviewed for the programme it is too late to change things, but when asked what is the one thing that may have stopped them picking up a knife, they all said hearing firsthand experiences from someone who had been to prison for knife crime.

Although what Panorama did in going to speak to these young men may seem controversial to some - 90% of the 16-24 year-olds questioned for our poll on tackling knife crime said that hearing from young men like the ones I spoke to is useful in the fight against knife crime.

Why I met young men jailed for a knife

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Raphael Rowe | 00:01 UK time, Monday, 12 January 2009

I doubt anyone in this country failed to hear about the number of teenagers who died last year after being stabbed by other teenagers using a knife.

34 teenagers were reported to have died, 23 of those in London, but the official figures are still to be released.

No surprise then that the Metropolitan Police declared knife crime its number one priority.

National newspapers like The Sun and The Mirror started campaigns and petitions.

Politicians also moved up a gear and the Government took any opportunity to explain what they were doing. As part of their It Doesn't Have To Happen campaign, they invested millions in shock advertisement campaigns, including posters showing severed fingers and gaping wounds.

Much was reported about why there was a problem and what needed to be done. There was even some controversy about whether white knife victims received more media attention than black victims.

Former teenage gang members and many other practitioners and volunteers were consulted and quoted.

As I followed the reports it was the families of victims, who always gave the most compelling and emotional opinion and that made me question what more could be done.
Mary the mother of a 15 year old girl stabbed to death by a 17 year old girl wanted to meet her daughters' murderer. She told me she had forgiven her but wanted to ask her why she did it.

And that got me thinking...

I first approached the Ministry of Justice with a request to visit young knife offenders in the summer of 2008. At the time I wanted to make a programme to show other teenagers where they will end up if they carry or use a knife.

A few months later, just as I was beginning to feel the opportunity to get some answers for the families of some victims was going to be a tough door to open, the Ministry of Justice agreed to allow us to interview young knife offenders in their prison cells.

Once inside I found it tough.

I sat on the bed of a teenager serving life for killing another kid, hearing him explain why it happened; what he thinks would stop others picking up a knife; how sorry he is for what he's done and how now he has to face the consequences.

These knife killers and offenders offered a rare but important insight into how to deal with knife crime. They told me those caught with a knife should go to prison. In the programme they said it is the only way to teach them and others carrying a knife or using a knife is wrong.

But one of the questions they could not answer was how they were going to survive serving a long prison sentence. Some of the offenders I met during the initial meeting were serving minimum 15 to 25 years for their offence.

One of the boys told me he was 18 and wouldn't get out until he was in his mid thirties. He wondered how he would cope locked in a confined space for all those years; not being able to walk to the shop, do simple things like open a door for himself as prison gates and cell doors do not have handles, just locks.

The tragedy is that these offenders only truly realized the price they would pay for carrying a knife, after they went to prison. By then it was too late for them and the families of victims, as one offender recognized:

"To be honest I could say I'm sorry, but sorry's not gonna bring their son back...I can say sorry and I mean I'm sorry like for the boy's parents and his family coz now they've got one less person at the Christmas table, but sorry's not gonna bring their son back. I know, I know personally they're not gonna wanna hear, I know that, there's nothing more I can say. I am sorry but who's gonna wanna believe that."

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