Richard Govan was the envy his neighbours when he worked for Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche and BMW dealerships and occasionally brought cars home during road testing.
Now the only car to be seen on his drive is a Vauxhall Cavalier as he pursues a new career teaching young offenders to be motor technicians while they serve their prison sentences.
Offenders like Owen Givans, who will spend his 21st birthday in gaol. Owen, a softly spoken Jamaican, is serving five years for drugs-related crime. He’s reticent about the details, saying “I’m paying for what I did, it’s in the past, now I’m concentrating on the future”.
Tom Cavey is more forthcoming. Aged 19, he was given four years for armed robbery. Tom can’t blame a bad upbringing for his crime. On his own admission his family is “brilliant” – his parents live in Newmarket where his father is a builder and breeds horses, and he has a brother and three sisters.
So what got him into trouble. “Drugs,” he says simply. “I was hanging about with mates who were doing crack (cocaine), and if I didn’t join them, I was left on my own.”
Earning £35 a day as a roofer’s mate and with a £300 a day addiction to pay for, he held up a general store and injured the owner who attempted to stop him.
Owen and Tom are among 24 lads at Aylesbury Young Offenders’ Institution doing an 18-month motor vehicle technician course for an NVQ level 3 qualification. The scheme is backed by Toyota, which invested £300,000 in vehicles and workshop equipment at launch six years ago and continues to invest between £20,000 to £30,000 a year.
Aylesbury is the equivalent of an adult maximum security prison. Many of the buildings date back to Victorian times, with the 340 inmates typically serving sentences of two to 10 years for offences ranging from rape and theft to murder. Vocational courses such as Toyota’s offer youngsters the opportunity to spend a maximum of five and a quarter hours a day outside their cells. Otherwise, they face the prospect of being ‘banged up’ 23 hours a day.
Despite this tough regime, 60 per cent of inmates re-offend within two years of release. Nationally, the recidivism rate is even higher – around 75 per cent.
But Richard Govan and colleague Andy Woodley – who was largely responsible for enlisting Toyota’s support at Aylesbury – don’t allow those statistics to dishearten them. “If just one lad goes out of here, gets a job and turns his back on crime for good, then I feel we’ve made a difference,” said Richard.
A 35-year-old stockily-built Glaswegian, he served his apprenticeship with Rover and spent some time as a college lecturer before going into dealership management. In his previous job, he was doubling up as service and parts manager and putting in 60 hours a week. “I wanted to spend more time with my family and when I saw this job advertised, I knew it was for me.”
More time with his family has come at the expense of a pay cut and physical danger – having to break up fights between inmates is not uncommon and he was recently the victim of an assault.
“What you always have to bear in mind, though, is the background of these youngsters,” said Richard. “Some have never been shown a kindness, so when they first come in here and you try to treat them with fairness and consideration, they’re suspicious, thinking ‘He must be up to something’.
“I’ve had to learn patience in teaching because those on the course tend to have had poor or virtually no schooling. But they’re intelligent and pick things up quickly on the practical side.”
Like Richard, Andy Woodley’s arrival at Aylesbury more than six years ago was prompted by long hours looking after construction vehicles and a wish to spend more time with his wife and three children.
At that time, the motor vehicle course was limited to NVQ level 2, with a couple of manufacturers loaning cars. “I prepared a business plan and must have sent off more than 200 faxes looking for more support until Toyota stepped in,” said Andy.
To his knowledge, around 13 of the inmates who recently completed the course have jobs. “We tend to learn of our successes or failures through employers who have either sacked a lad, or he’s quit, or because they’re so pleased with someone that they want to know if there are any more like him they can take on.”
Andy believes that with the right approach, young offenders stand a good chance of mending their ways. “Older people are stuck in their habits, but youngsters can be influenced by good as well as bad. It’s up to us to give them a sense of fairness and respect for others.”
That fairness even extends to ‘lifers’ who are eligible for the course, and Andy’s experience has taught him there is no such person as a ‘no-hoper’.
“I had one lad whose father was in prison for murder and a mother who was a prostitute. She taught him to steal-to-order. Today, he’s in regular employment and married with a young family and still keeps in touch,” said Andy.
He stressed that Toyota’s involvement is “very much a team effort”. Recent visitors to Aylesbury were Toyota F1 drivers Olivier Panis and Cristiano Da Matta, and Andy and Richard are in regular contact with Gary Harlock, Toyota’s regional training manager, who commented: “Toyota’s training scheme at Aylesbury gives young men the self-confidence, interpersonal skills and motivation to secure employment on leaving prison and forge a new life for themselves.”
By February of this year, 70 inmates had completed their training, and there are hopes of recruiting another lecturer to increase the intake from 24 to 36. Toyota says that as well as addressing the employment problems faced by prisoners, the scheme also helps tackle the issue of a national shortage of qualified technicians.
On release, Owen Givans currently faces a bleak future. He’s due for deportation back to Jamaica. “There’s nothing for me there, only the poverty I was trying to escape from,” he says. But as one of the most promising lads on the technician course, efforts are being made to have the deportation order reassessed.
For Tom Cavey, prospects are brighter. With just over six months to go before his parole hearing, he’s determined to finish the course “and have a qualification, something worthwhile I can show people – my father said if I do something positive, he will back me all the way”.
The Toyota training scheme at Aylesbury Young Offenders’ Institution is included in a national register compiled by a charity whose work involves the rehabilitation of young offenders.
The Michael Sieff Foundation has also produced a video, entitled ‘A second chance’, showing young offenders examples of employers prepared to offer them training and jobs – the opportunity to ‘go straight’.
Employers featured on the register – currently totalling 50 – range from Marks & Spencer and the Costain building group to Virgin Records and the Army.
Lady Elizabeth Haslam established the Michael Sieff Foundation in 1986 in memory of her husband, Michael Sieff, a vice-chairman of Marks & Spencer.
Both had involved themselves in the education and welfare of young people, but what triggered the setting up of the Foundation was the public outcry following the killing of a young girl, Jasmine Beckford, by her stepfather, while she was in the care of social services.
“Like many others, I was so incensed by the circumstances leading up to that poor girl’s death that I organised a conference to discuss the need for better communication between those who are responsible for young people’s welfare, and things followed on from there,” said Lady Haslam.
The charity, which is “dedicated to improving policy and practice for children and young people in need”, is headed by its president Lord Laming, who chaired a public inquiry into a more recent victim of abuse, eight year old Victoria Climbié. Chairman is Baroness Howarth, who is also a member of the House of Lords children’s committee.
Explaining the reasons behind the Second Chance initiative, Lady Haslam said: “It’s a sad fact that there are more than 11,000 young people in prisons in this country – proportionately more than most other Western European countries. Most come from violent or broken homes, have little or no education and no job skills.
“Prison clearly is not an effective deterrent because three quarters re-offend within two years of release.
“Industry has a real role and opportunity to break this cycle. The social benefits are obvious and there’s no need for employers to be defensive about their own self-interest.”
Echoing Toyota’s efforts to provide more skilled people, Lady Haslam commented: “Why have shortages of skilled workers when there’s literally a captive pool of young people in prison eager for something useful to do?
“Employers on our training and jobs register report that the youngsters are bright and receptive and only a handful re-offend. We need more enlightened employers to join them. Just fill in the form and send it to us.”
For more information about the Michael Sieff Foundation view the website www.michaelsieff-foundation.org.uk