Their own swimming pool and sports hall, and outdoor activities to boot - do young offenders get an easy ride?

In the second in a series of special reports, Nick Morrison looks at what life is like for young people in custody.

'IF you compare it to prison, it's cushy, but when you think of where you would rather be, here or home, well... it's crap. In the end up, you still get locked in your bedroom." Darryl knows he is lucky to have been sent to a secure unit, although some days that takes a bit of remembering. The prospect of the alternative, a Young Offenders' Institution (YOI), is not one he relishes.

"It is like a proper prison compared to here. It is hell," he says. "I have nearly been sent to a YOI before, so I have to be good. I know if I get in trouble again, I'll be 16 so I won't be going somewhere like this. I don't think I'll get into trouble again when I get out of here. I'm certain."

There may be carpets on the floors, sofas in the common rooms and one person to a bedroom, but every door is still locked. There's a yard outside for the young people to play football, but the pitch is bordered by the shadows of metal fences that top the walls. It may not be a prison, but they're still locked in their rooms at night.

But, perhaps surprisingly, this doesn't seem to be the main gripe for the young offenders at Aycliffe Secure Unit, one of just ten of its kind in the country. Darryl isn't alone in saying that the constant unlocking and locking of doors quickly becomes routine.

"At first, you get here and it's weird walking through the locked doors, but eventually you get used to it. It becomes like a bus route," he says. The 15-year-old from Teesside is one of around 40 young people at Aycliffe. Like many, he is reluctant to say what he did to get here - an attitude encouraged by staff who fear it could lead to boasting, exaggeration and, ultimately, arguments, whether verbal or physical.

After ten months at Aycliffe, with two to go, Darryl has had time to get used to the regime, and he's got a clear idea of what makes the time go more quickly or slower. The centre is divided into four 'houses', each within the same building, but run as separate units and divided by several locked doors. Apart from the occasional joint activity, most of Darryl's time is spent with the same group of about ten young people.

"It is alright sometimes, depending really what kids are in the house. If you have got a bunch of immature kids, it kind of goes slower. When you've got someone you can get on with, it goes a bit faster. It is like you're occupied and you're not just sitting around waiting for the day to finish, because there is nothing really to do. We've got a few good ones here at the moment," he says.

During term-time, weekdays are taken up with lessons - being locked up doesn't stop them from taking GCSEs - followed by group work. This covers sex and drug education, as well as tackling the young people's approach to crime, trying to get them to see why what they have done is wrong, and how to avoid getting into situations like that in the future. Weekends are the time most of them dread. They can get up later, but with nowhere to go, and no lessons to occupy them, the empty days stretch ahead. There is a swimming pool, and a gym, but sessions are limited and allocated to each house in turn.

During holidays, there are weeks filled with nothing much, so it's hardly surprising that this is the time when the atmosphere at the centre is at its most tense. To try and alleviate the restlessness, some of the children - those whose behaviour warrants it - are taken on trips away for a few days: at Easter, it was camping on the isle of Arran. An activity centre in the Yorkshire Dales is also used at weekends and holidays. It is this side of the regime which attracts criticism that it's too soft on its young people, but this isn't a point of view which cuts much ice with centre manager Gill Palin.

'All children should have access to those types of activities. It is giving them an opportunity to sample activities they can then take back into the community, and that is one way of preventing them from reoffending. If they're doing that, they're not standing on street corners or knocking other lads on the head," she says.

"The punishment is to take a child's liberty, to lock a child in a bedroom from 9.30 at night until seven in the morning. But being locked up isn't just about being in their bedrooms. They're being deprived of their liberty; they're not with their mums and dads and their sisters and brothers.

"This is not a holiday camp. It is very demanding for kids and it is very challenging. It is a very rigid regime. What do people want to happen to these children? How do they want to see them punished? To me, being locked up is a punishment, being apart from your parents."

She says much of the centre's work is about trying to deal with the life experiences, some of which she says are horrendous, which have led these children to offend. Very few children commit crime because they've had a happy childhood.

"We look at them as children first, at the reasons why they have offended and work through with them to see what we can do to stop them reoffending. If someone has committed a serious offence, it is probably a one-off and we need to look at why that happened. For a persistent pattern offender, we look at what makes them pinch cars or burgle. The risk factors are different for each child.

"A lot of children come here with really low self-esteem. They have probably never been praised for anything, they have had no recognition for what they have done, so we work on establishing trusting relationships, so they learn how to respect themselves and the staff," she says.

For Darryl, it may be the prospect of a YOI which deters him from resuming offending on his release, but he says his ten months at Aycliffe have given him a new perspective.

"The group work makes you think of things. It teaches you to listen, and that if you do something wrong you're going to get punished for it. It makes you think about your crime, and about the consequences and how it affects other people.

"Before, you would think about it, but you don't think about it, in a way. I would look at it as something bad, but not of how it has affected all these people. I think I've grown up a bit more," he says.

Although it is preferable to a YOI, and he admits it's not as grim a experience as he thought when he arrived, there's still no doubt in Darryl's mind where he'd rather be.

"It is not all that bad in here. Some kids don't really care whether they get locked up and some kids will reoffend so they get locked up, because they have a shit life on the out. It isn't really like a prison: it's like a care home, but you get a door locked on you in the night-time.

"But I would not say it was comfortable and you still think of home - it is nothing compared to being at home. You don't really want to be put away from your family and friends. I'm gutted because I've missed a year out of my life. I've done better in my GCSEs than I would have on the out, but it's been a wasted year."

* "This is the last chance for most kids" - see The Northern Echo next Monday