Hunting for the good kids within

By Jarrod Booker

The first of the Government's new boot camps for serious repeat youth offenders has begun. Reporter Jarrod Booker went along for an exclusive look

The MAC programme is a vital opportunity for many of the youths to turn their lives around. Photo / Simon Baker
The MAC programme is a vital opportunity for many of the youths to turn their lives around. Photo / Simon Baker

They are among the country's worst young criminals, but you would not know it from spending a day with them.

The 10 young men, aged 15 to 17, in the first intake of the Government's highly-anticipated new boot camps, or Military Activity Camp (MAC), seem a regular-looking bunch of teenagers. Some are rowdy, some are withdrawn.

When the Weekend Herald visited yesterday for an exclusive first look inside the camp, perhaps they were just putting on their best behaviour.

They are polite, if a little cheeky. One of the teenagers offers up his chair at lunch to the Weekend Herald reporter, saying, "I don't like to see the guests standing".

This ethnically mixed group are classified as "high-risk" offenders. They have committed some nasty crimes and persistently break the law. At the beginning of this visit, there is clear warning from the camp's supervising staff about the risk they pose, and how things can change "from moment to moment".

"These are the guys that have offended at the top end," says residence manager Theresa Perham.

The boot camp is a last chance to try to turn their lives around, instil some discipline and put them on a path away from jail. During the eight weeks they will spend in the camp, their days are strictly controlled and crammed full of programmes and demanding physical activity from the 6.30am start to the 9pm bedtime.

During the camp, they are housed in the Rakaia unit at the Te Puna Wai o Tuhinipo youth justice facility at Rolleston, near Christchurch. Mottos are posted up on the wall such as: "Respect each other" and "Show by your actions that your family can have faith in you".

There is also a list of standards expected regarding appearance and behaviour, and a tally of points based on how they do. Points can be used to claim privileges like time watching television or playing video games.

When the Weekend Herald arrives at the unit, there is a greeting from one of the teenagers - who are all dressed in black shirt and pants - before they sit down in their classroom for some lessons.

Some of them have been out of school for years. Some have a reading age of 8. Yet they are generally eager to learn, says teacher Steve McKelvey.

"Basically, they are just kids. But some of them have come from really horrendous backgrounds."

They compete in class to answer questions from a learner drivers' licence test, and are asked to analyse newspaper articles or do maths problems.

One of the teens scribbles a tag on his maths sheet, then hides it so the staff can't see. Another insists on writing lyrics rather than doing his work. When they leave class, a careful count of pencils, pens and scissors is done. Staff have to ensure none of the teens has sneaked one of the tools out to tag with, or worse, use as a weapon.

Next it is out into the unit's enclosed courtyard for a smooth display of marching and drills under the watchful eye of a New Zealand Army corporal barking out instructions.

At lunch, the teens sit at a table with the adult staff. One of them says a prayer, in which he offers a thought for the victims of the group, before they eat. The meal is savories, sandwiches and fruit. It seems plentiful, but the teens complain there is not enough at meal-time.

Later, the topic of the size of the meals come up again at the day's "community meeting", where the teens sit on the grass with staff to talk through issues and air grievances.

They also complain about how the behaviour of others can affect their privileges. One complains about being pushed by a staff member.

"I have had enough of that shit in my life," he says.

MAC co-ordinator Jason Northover explains that the staff, who must be addressed as "staff" by the teens, will sometimes have to physically move the teens to defuse potentially dangerous situations.

But he says it is evident after only three weeks of this first boot camp that there are "positive effects" on the teens. "Some of them have only negative views of adult interaction, or control issues. So in that first week, we usually come up against those quite quickly."

When the teens learned they didn't have to always be ordered around, if they instead made the right choices, they saw things differently.

"Some of them feel trapped in the cycle and they don't know how to get out. So coming in, and seeing that there are options, makes a huge difference."

* The teenagers taking part in the boot camp cannot be identified for legal reasons.

- NZ Herald

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