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Jailed for a Knife

Reporter Raphael Rowe speaks of what he learned in his interviews with the jailed young offenders

After a year in which 34 teenagers died in knife crime incidents in the UK, 23 in London alone, can we really hope 2009 will be any different?

In Jailed for a Knife, Raphael Rowe seeks answers from five young men at two young offender institutions, all currently serving sentences for having wounded or even killed with a knife.

Prior to prison they all seem to have given little consideration to what the consequences of carrying a knife could be:

Young offender from Panorama's Jailed for a Knife looking out of window
Panorama spoke to convicted knife attackers in their cells

"One minute I was going to have a drink with a girl - 60 seconds later there's a man dead. The whole world's changed," said one who aged just 17, stabbed and killed another young man.

He, like the other offenders Panorama spoke to, said that knives had been part of his life from the age of 13 when he first started carrying one to school.

A 2004 Mori poll found 28% of school children said they carried a knife.

One had even been given a blade by his own brother as a way to protect himself when those around him started carrying knives. He is now serving a life sentence for murder.

All five young men interviewed for the programme claimed to have been carrying knives for self-protection, yet none were being threatened with a knife when they attacked. And though they were aware that that using a knife was illegal, insights from these young men suggest that the immediate threat of violence held greater sway than the distant threat of a prison sentence.

One offender, serving a three year sentence for Grievous Bodily Harm, told the programme he never thought he would end up behind bars. First arrested after a scuffle in which he stabbed his opponent, he was charged for wounding. He was released on bail only to pick up and use a knife again.

Tougher sentencing

The revolving door of the prison system prompted some of the young men interviewed to called for harsher sentencing to stop that happening.

Knives on a table
Last year 34 young people died in knife attacks in the UK

The law has got tougher since most of the young people interviewed for this programme committed their crimes. In February 2007 the maximum prison sentence was doubled from two years to four and from June 2008 the government said that anyone over the age of 16 found carrying a knife in public should expect to be prosecuted.

But the four year sentence is only given in exceptional circumstances and more needs to be done to break the cycle of young people reaching for a knife in the first place.

Now in prison, the offenders speak about how it was only once they were locked up that they started receiving proper help and support.

"Now I've come to prison I can think, I can got to classes and I can stop fights and say, oh, you don't really want to be doing this… I can educate people and give people something I never got," said one.

Another suggested that young people on the outside need to hear more from those with direct experience of knife crime.

Filmed in their cells, prison life certainly brings home the reality of where knife crime can lead. One called it "disgusting… I have to eat my food one metre away from my toilet."

Another described the effect on his family in a world where everything is dictated by the prison service:

"You're on a visit with your mum and they tell you you've got five minutes left. I'm talking to my Mum and they're telling me I have five minutes left."

And with a life sentence stretching before him, another young offender expressed his remorse about his victim's death:

"It's just devastating for everyone who knew him and everyone who knew me, just from that one instance just taking a knife," he said.

Panorama: Jailed for Knife on BBC One, Monday 12 January 2009 at 8.30pm.

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