At Polmont Young Offenders Institution a new scheme is bringing home to inmates the reality of our knife culture
JAY is sitting behind locked doors and barred windows, he's clean shaven, good looking, articulate and his words pour out in a torrential, breathless flow.
They are shockingly poignant and painfully harrowing. For he's remembering the day he gripped a knife and stabbed another young man to death.
"It was the only time I'd picked up a knife," says Jay, who marked his 20th birthday yesterday in his Polmont prison cell.
"I killed someone. I don't even know why it happened. He didn't deserve it and his family didn't deserve it," he continues, with a resigned shake of his head.
"They might not want an apology but I want them to know I'm sorry."
Jay, pictured below, is sitting in the education centre at Polmont Young Offenders Institution, home to 700 lads aged 16 to 21. Many are there for violent crimes, a substantial number involving knives.
Beside him are ten others, their identities morphed into one with their identikit prison issue blue tops, cropped hair, Edinburgh accents peppered with profanities.
Out of the 11, seven casually admit, without bravado, that they have carried a knife or another weapon. They have been brought here from their cells for a graphic, provocative and sometimes surprising and bizarre session on knife crime aimed at helping stop them becoming the next Jay, or, indeed, the next lifeless victim.
It's here, in a learning centre room with walls covered in scrapbook-style posters made by earlier inmates which divulge lives broken by divorce, drugs and violence, that the jail is fighting a last-gasp battle in the war to reform young minds scarred by Scotland's grim knife culture. They are doing it by using every shock tactic possible.
For today's session there are bloody pictures of a knife victim with a large blade buried up to its hilt in his chest, gruesome images of surgery with a rib cage splayed open to display a wounded heart.
There's the mesmerising, sad stare of pretty Edinburgh girl Kirsty Nesbit, just 16 when her face was brutally slashed after a row with a 14-year-old friend, 93 stitches were needed to piece it back together.
And there are agonising words from a young man pinned in a wheelchair, paralysed from the shoulders down by a knife that severed his spinal cord and who can't even scratch his own nose any more.
"What d'ya think of that? How'd that make you feel? Cannae even scratch yer ain nose? No worth it, eh?" says prison interventions officer Kenny Cunningham, a straight-talker who grew up in Castlemilk, who along with colleague Mark Lawlor devised this unique and ground-breaking session.
"He says his biggest fear noo is wasps – he cannae move fae the neck down. What aboot that then? Whit d'ya think his life's like now?"
One reply comes from teenager Daniel, from Restalrig, who insists he didn't carry a knife but did take one from someone's kitchen to stab them. "Worse than being deid?" he suggests.
Daniel, Jay and the others are urged to consider the perils of knives, the "ripple effect" that swamps families, friends, workmates and communities when a stabbing occurs and the dreadful consequences whichever end of the knife they find themselves on.
Amid the serious talk, come laughs as they recognise themselves in the officers' vivid roleplay scenes – at one point one pulls a "knife" on the other, they grapple, one is "stabbed".
And while they talk of boozing and dropping "blues" – Valium – of daft fights and mad pals urging them to do stupid things, outside in Scotland's streets another two knife crimes have been committed – there's an average of 25 knife-related incidents every day.
It's there, beyond these grim and imposing walls and on Edinburgh streets that the Scottish Government has begun running its own anti-knife crime campaign.
If successful, it could stop more lads finding themselves in the prison's education wing, being urged to think again about carrying a knife.
Last month the Scottish Government announced No Knives Better Lives, a 500,000 multi-agency programme involving police, council and community groups, is to be rolled out in the north of Edinburgh.
Initially focused on Leith, Leith Walk, Inverleith and Granton, where just under a third of crime is knife-related, it uses police, the city council, youth workers and schools to hammer home the anti-knives message through sports, cultural events and education.
By autumn, schools in the area will take part in an educational anti-knives programme and a series of graphic knife crime posters will flood the area.
Councillor Paul Edie, community safety convenor, says: "Carrying a knife and violent behaviour is unacceptable. The initiative is aimed at getting that message across to young people and stopping knife crime before it happens.
"Reaching out to young people before they get involved in crime is just as important as making sure that those who have offended in the past are educated about the consequences of their actions."
When a similar scheme ran in Inverclyde, there was a 23 per cent dip in knife possession over six months.
For those who decide to tune out of its perhaps life-saving message, the option will almost certainly be Polmont.
Jay arrived here just hours before his 17th birthday, after seeing a man die at his feet.
He insists he wasn't in a gang, he wasn't into drugs. He had two jobs, one as a roofer, the other delivering meals for a Chinese takeaway.
It was three years ago. A character known to have a violent background had demanded drugs, there was a row, threats were made.
Jay says he was handed a knife by a "friend" and together, he claims reluctantly, they squared up to the other person outside.
"This guy had a reputation for carrying knives," he recalls. "He started to walk towards me. Because of who he was I thought he had a knife.
"I had the knife in my pocket, I tried to lift it up but it went into him, right next to his belly button.
"He dropped down dead. Instant."
Jay is serving eight years for culpable homicide. He might get out next summer, but he might still be inside until October 2012.
The jail's knife session has reinforced his determination never to go near another blade. "I just want to get out and get on with my life," he insists.
Of course, prison programme officers Kenny and Mark have heard it before: one of the lads featured in their seminar said the same, now he's back behind bars after stabbing three people.
"Seven out of ten of you will be back here," warns Mark, pointing around the room.
"There must be something really good about this place to keep you wanting to come back."
Behind him the graphic image of a man on a hospital trolley, knife sticking out his chest flickers on the screen.
"That could be you," he tells them. "It could be your sister, your next-door neighbour, your mate.
"Or it could be you doing it to someone else and looking at 20 years in jail.
"Does it make any sense?"
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