The Queen’s pigeons are helping in the treatment of imprisoned youngsters. Lara Lambert reports from inside a special institution at Wetherby.
Chained to a post by one scaly black leg a Russian steppe eagle lunges at its shackles, its wings flailing against a skyline punctuated by rolls of razor wire.
Ken, 18, is in sole charge of the thrashing bird and he settles it with a gloved hand.
The eagle is one of 48 birds of prey kept behind the chain-link fences that secures Wetherby Young Offenders Institution, a prison set in rolling fields close to the racecourse.
The birds’ captivity mirrors that of the 400 youths who share these grim quarters and brings a whole new meaning to the expression “doing bird”.
A former borstal, a sign outside the fenced enclosure declares that this is now a “Secure College of Learning”. Beneath, in a swirl of yellow script, it pledges to be “Turning Young Lives Around”.
The raptors, which include Harris hawks, kestrels, barn owls, and a snowy owl, are among an unlikely menagerie of animals that help staff attempt this recovery.
The idea is that boys like Ken, who is serving a three year and eight month sentence for serious violent offences, will learn to master their tempers when handling these haughty birds.
In the prison’s high dependency wing, ducks, rabbits, hens, pigeons, and fish are used for more intensive work.
“The animals work on all sorts of levels,” explains the unit’s manager, Mrs Terry Wilson.
“They are used in therapy sessions – in lessons where for instance if the lads catch a fish they then weigh it and find out where it comes from and so on. But mostly they calm the lads down.”
This place is home to some of the country’s most traumatised children, many of them the products of neglect, abuse and the chaotic childhoods that are the legacy of alcohol and drugs. It is named after an 18th century seafaring hero, Sir Augustus Keppel, in recognition of the fact that this was once a naval base.
It’s the only unit of its kind in the UK where these youths are sent because they are capable of such extreme violence, mainly against themselves, that mainstream prisons do not know how to contain them.
Staff here are on constant suicide watch. The furniture is fixed to the floor, cutlery is restricted to spoons that must be handed in and counted after every meal and boys are watched carefully around sheets, pens, even fragments of stone picked out of the cracks in walls that can be used to draw blood.
In spite of the offenders’ past, the atmosphere in Keppel is tranquil.
Built in 2008, the unit was designed to look more like a home than an institution. There are no bars on the windows and the youths each have their own rooms, 48 all told.
Animals play a key role in the way that the specially trained staff get the 15- to 18-year-olds, to take responsibility for their offending behaviour.
Ducks roam freely on lawns that gently slope down to a well-stocked fishing pond. Hen and rabbit coops are dotted on the furthest bank. Those who have never known physical boundaries, are taught how to touch them safely and appropriately.
Among a group fishing by the pond in bright orange life jackets is Steven, 18. He is serving consecutive sentences for street robbery and witness intimidation and he confesses to having “bottled someone”. “I never even thought about my victims before,” he says, “I feel sorry now.” Steven adds that he is saving for a fishing rod when he gets out.
So far there has only been once case of cruelty here. The culprit, who threw bread at the ducklings, was immediately banned from fishing.
Mostly the boys are fiercely protective of the animals and have been known to scoop the pet rabbit, Maddie, out of harm’s way when fights break out.
“I’ll never forget being called to a fight between two lads,” says Reg Bond who runs the raptor centre.
“The boys had put the barn owls down safely before laying into each other.”
Mr Bond regularly takes inmates to show the raptors at schools and festivals. Last year the project won a Duke of York Community Initiative Award.
“Watching these birds raise their young is the first time some of these lads have seen two parents do that,” he says.
Mr Bond is hand-rearing three orphaned kestrel chicks and Stephen, who has a four-year-old daughter at home, finds their utter dependency poignant.
Rob, 17, is serving the last day of an 18-month sentence and will miss the racing pigeons, whose long pedigrees impress him. Three of the pigeons are on loan from the Queen’s Sandringham Estate. “I wasn’t brought up with family,” he shrugs. “I like that these stop with their babies.”
There is a respectful, but easy rapport between inmates and staff. Officers call them “lads” and the “lads” in turn call them “sir” or “miss” – although in the case of 17-year-old Charlie, who has been here eight months and is among the unit’s most vulnerable children, Mrs Wilson is “Aunt Terry”.
Charlie’s favourite animal is an Airedale terrier brought in weekly by a volunteer from the charity, Pets as Therapy.
Animals are a commonly used by child psychologists to engage traumatised children.
“I had one lad here who wouldn’t talk at all, but he would talk to the dog. So we used to talk through the dog,” explains Mrs Wilson.
“I would ask the dog a question, and the lad would answer the dog.”
Despite its unorthodox approach, Her Majesty’s Prison Inspectorate has lauded Keppel as exemplary and there are plans to build more units like it across the country.
The difference between Keppel and the rest of Wetherby Young Offenders Institution (YOI) is palpable.
The overriding sound here is one of birdsong, a stark contrast to the clamour of swinging key chains and slamming doors that pervades the rest of the prison.
The young men from the main prison can see the Keppel inmates through the barbed wire and jeer at them as they pass the fenced boundary on their way to and from lessons.
A few lean out of the upper windows overlooking Keppel and make sneering farmyard noises.
The lads in Keppel are permitted much greater access to the outdoors as part of the strategy to reduce stress levels.
Admittance to Keppel is not assessed on the severity of the crime that these lads have committed – the gamut of offences among them ranges from rape and murder to far lesser crimes – but rather it is based on their personality.
Extrovert or disruptive boys are not admitted and only those with inward personalities that are more likely to self-harm gain access.
The staff ratio here is six to one, compared with 10 to one in the main prison – a necessity among youths who are usually habituated to violence. The cost per inmate is about £90,000 a year.
A high proportion of those in Keppel have been transferred here after being bullied in the main prison.
One, a cheerful bearded 18-year-old, explains that he was transferred after he flatly refused to come out of his cell for six weeks.
Some, like Linda, a transsexual admitted this month because no other prison in the country could accommodate her, would be bullied mercilessly in any other setting.
Understandably, most of the lads prefer Keppel where they say they are treated “decently”. Keppel has had a waiting list of applicants from prisons nationwide since the day it opened.
One downside of this is that the unit is less able to work with their families to establish ties both during and after their release.
This fact attracted criticism from HMI Inspectorate in 2009, which described Keppel as a “victim of its own success”.
But Mrs Wilson says there is little funding and scant support for children when they leave and many of the more seriously disturbed children return.
To prevent reoffending, she claims, the safe, caring environment provided by Keppel should be continued after release.
“Our work doesn’t finish here. It starts here.
“When these lads come here they get to know reasonable people who give them the care and the boundaries they need and then they go out and to what?” she says.
Mrs Wilson wants to see better funding for organisations in the community to make sure the work at Keppel continues, but is realistic about the status quo. “At the end of the day we’re a prison wing, not the Priory.”
Mrs Wilson was awarded an MBE last year in recognition of her role in the conception and development of Keppel.
Conscious that victims of crime might see Keppel as a soft option, she points to the extremely difficult backgrounds these youths have endured and claims the approach is the only viable way to address their rehabilitation.
The most disturbing, she says, was a 16-year-old autistic boy sentenced for arson. He was illiterate, doubly incontinent, and had been routinely locked in his bedroom and sedated with cannabis and alcohol by his parents.
Staff at Keppel taught him to use the toilet, read, write and weaned him off his drug dependency.
“I see these lads when they come in and I see them when they go out and they are different boys. There is a glimmer of hope.
“We give these lads rules, boundaries, an education. Things they’ve never had before.
“They have to go back into society when they leave and they have to know that there are choices other than rape and pillage and robbery.”