This Thursday sees the screening of the first episode of ITV's four-part re-enactment series 'Bring Back Borstal' and the Daily Mail can barely contain itself, such is their excitement:-
Bring back Borstal! In a new TV experiment, young offenders are incarcerated under the draconian conditions of a 1930s borstal and the results are astonishing
PlayStations, televisions, central heating and fast food: the teenage criminals who spend 22 hours a day cooped up in their cells at young offenders’ institutions have got it too easy, according to leading criminologist and former prison governor Professor David Wilson. And the experience does no good, either to them or to the rest of us.
Within two years of release, 80 per cent of young criminals are back in court, having learned nothing from their punishment. Professor Wilson believes that is the fault of the system, not the youngsters. He says prison and youth custody are about warehousing people, not rehabilitating them. And he’s got some surprisingly stringent solutions – along with some extraordinary statistics to back them up.
In the 1930s, teenage delinquents were subjected to the austere regime of borstal – a sort of compulsory boarding school for young tearaways. They slept in cold dormitories, rose at 6am for morning runs and icy showers, scrubbed floors and studied. And if they swore, blasphemed or answered back, that regime could get a great deal harsher.
But the results were startling. Seven out of ten young offenders never broke the law again after a spell of pre-war borstal. This wasn’t simply because the punishment was a deterrent – their life behind bars taught the boys discipline, respect for authority and, ultimately, respect for themselves.
Professor Wilson believes that system can still work. And to prove it, he has recreated a 1930s borstal at a remote Northumberland castle and dragooned a busload of young thugs, drug dealers and thieves to test it out. The results, revealed in a new documentary series, Bring Back Borstal, makes emotional and often wryly entertaining viewing.
All the young men involved volunteered for the four-week course, but they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. Their first taste of the 30s came before they even arrived at borstal, when they were handed their uniforms – grey jackets and short trousers, with long woollen socks.It would seem as good a time as any to look at this early experiment that sought to rehabilitate young offenders, rather than just punish them. This from wikipedia:-
The Gladstone Committee (1895) first proposed the concept of the borstal, wishing to separate youths from older convicts in adult prisons. It was the task of Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise (1857–1935), a prison commissioner, to introduce the system, and the first such institution was established at Borstal Prison in a village called Borstal, near Rochester, Kent, England in 1902. The system was developed on a national basis and formalised in the Prevention of Crime Act 1908.
The regimen in these institutions was designed to be "educational rather than punitive", but it was highly regulated, with a focus on routine, discipline and authority. Borstal institutions were designed to offer education, regular work and discipline, though one commentator has claimed that "more often than not they were breeding grounds for bullies and psychopaths." Some uncorroborated anecdotal evidence exists of unofficial brutality, both by staff towards the inmates and between inmates – though possibly no more than is the case for the prison system as a whole. In the 1930s, the borstal system produced a re-offending rate of around 30%, as opposed to a modern (2014) youth re-offending rate of at least 75%.
The Criminal Justice Act 1982 abolished the borstal system in the UK, introducing youth custody centres instead.Not surprisingly, it's 'tough' image holds a certain attraction to those on the political right, as admirably demonstrated in this Daily Mail piece in the aftermath of the London riots in 2011:-
'Bring back borstal for young rioters' says Boris in tough new call to isolate troublemakers from their peers
Rioters and looting youngsters should be sent to tough special schools which give unruly children lessons in behaviour, Boris Johnson insisted today. The London Mayor said courts should be able to send those aged 11 to 15 convicted of being involved in disturbances to pupil referral units (PRUs) - a power only available to headteachers. In a letter to Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, Mr Johnson said removing the difficult children from the comfort of their school would 'hit home'.
He said: 'It would isolate them from their peer group during the school day, preventing bragging rights on school premises, and sends a salutary warning to other pupils that such behaviour will result in temporary ejection from the school community. 'Referring them to a PRU puts them in a unit where teachers are already skilled in addressing unacceptable behaviour but at the same time ensures that their education is continued.'
Dubbed '21st century borstals', trained staff at the PRUs - also known as 'short stay schools' host children who have been expelled.Apart from the Daily Mail, I have no idea who else would dub PRU's '21st century borstals', but here they are having a rather more reflective look at the subject in 2012:-
Brutal exercise, hard work and strict education - topped off with a bit of musical theatre: The days Borstals knocked yobs into shape
Where else would you spend the morning scrubbing floors and praying in church, the afternoon laying bricks in the driving rain, and the evening agonising over stage directions for an all-male Gilbert and Sullivan operetta?
Borstals were introduced in Britain in 1902. The template was public boarding schools (with very secure locks) and the theory was that if delinquent youths (aged 16 to 21) were subjected to a similar regime of brutal exercise, house masters, dorms, endless lessons and the strict regime of the house system, they’d develop self-discipline and a sense of pride, and turn their backs on crime in a flash.
Borstals were more about training, correction and developing employability, and less about punishment. For many boys, there was more on offer than at home — three square meals a day and physical, mental and religious discipline. Upon their release, they were given help with lodgings, jobs and funding, and reoffending rates were low.
It wasn’t just boys. Girls (housed in separate all-women Borstals) were taught to cook, sew, iron and clean, and learned basic farming skills, flower arranging and nursing. They let off steam with netball matches, group exercise classes, dancing and ping-pong.
Borstal training was not an unqualified success. Bullying among the boys was rife. Housemasters at Rochester Borstal were constantly combing the local Medway valley for absconders — in the early 1940s there were more than 100 escapees a year. Which is little surprise, because although many of the youths had committed only lesser offences — petty theft, minor assault — and ‘training sentences’ were indeterminate, stretching anything up to five years, until they were deemed ‘corrected’. But most youths did emerge fit, able and, thanks to the skills training, ready and eager to work.Even before the first episode has aired, it's proving highly controversial. This from Rob Allen:-
This sort of fundamental misunderstanding must be a risk in Professor David Wilson’s television project Bring Back Borstal which starts on primetime ITV next week. I was surprised to read in the Daily Mail that the former vice chair of the Howard League believes cold dormitories, icy showers and scrubbing floors can rehabilitate young offenders better than today’s soft young offender institutions. We’ll have to wait until Thursday to see if that really is his view. But presumably by going to the effort of recreating a 1930’s institution and recruiting troubled young men to experience its regime for a month, he believes at least that there may be something to learn. While I will reserve judgment until I've seen the first episode at least, I have serious doubts about whether there’s anything that we can or should apply from such a bygone era.According to the Mirror, all does not go to plan:-
For one thing, there’s a question about how successful borstals actually were in rehabilitating young offenders. A leading study of the system reported in 1973 that “during the 1930's Borstals appear to have enjoyed outstanding success, rehabilitating a claimed 70% of trainees”. But the claim of "phenomenal" results is not referenced, other than to figures from the Borstal Association - an organisation providing after care support to those released from the institution - not perhaps the most objective source of data .
Even if re-conviction rates were comparatively low, they may well be the result of selection effects. Borstal training was always one of several custodial sentencing options designed for those individuals deemed most likely to respond to the training on offer. Comparing the success rate to the 70% failure rate in today’s institutions which take allcomers, is looking at apples and oranges.
It’s also true that re-offending rates among borstal leavers increased substantially between the 1930’s and 1970’s, in large part because, according to the 1973 study of a “deterioration in the quality of boys”. This unhappy phrase alerts us to the fact that the very welcome decline in the use of custody for young men in recent years has meant that those who do continue to be locked up present many more challenges than the borstal boys of yesteryear. Levels of drug and alcohol misuse, mental health difficulties, and gang affiliations make the idea of reinstating dormitory accommodation in young offender establishments irresponsible if not dangerous. A much more realistic set of recommendations are found in Barrow Cadbury's 2013 report.
But the bigger problem is that programmes like this give succour to those who want to roll back the clock to a purported golden age where simple virtues of exercise, hard work and strict education could allegedly knock yobs into shape. It’s a dangerous fantasy – or as the Guardian TV guide puts it - punishment porn. This would be bad enough in itself, but with the government on the verge of creating a so called secure college which almost every expert thinks a disaster in the making, it could have a highly damaging impact in the real world.
A third of ITV's Borstal youngsters QUIT in first week of programme
It was never billed as a holiday camp, but when ITV bosses recreated 1930s Borstal conditions for a month-long “social experiment” series they didn’t expect a third of the participants to quit in the first week. Fourteen youngsters signed up to take part in the four-part series, half of whom had previous criminal convictions. But one of the boys had pulled out before filming even began and four more quit during the opening hour-long instalment – with the first not even making it to lunchtime on day one.
The programme’s aim is to discover whether the hard work, education and exercise regime used in Borstal to help the inmates improve themselves would be beneficial to today’s troublemakers. The experiment is run by Professor David Wilson, one of the UK’s leading criminologists, who takes the role of governor to discover whether old-fashioned tactics could break modern cycles of bad behaviour.
“I’m taking part because seven out of ten young people who went through Borstal in the 1930s never committed crime again after their release,” he explains. Today’s statistics are in stark contract, with three quarters of those released from prison going on to re-offend within 12 months.
“This is a tough regime,” he adds. “We are not locking up these young men and allowing them to sit in their cells watching television or playing Playstation. We’re saying that being active on the sports field, or in the classroom, or at work, will ultimately help them have a better stake in the community when they return.”Bring Back Borstal ITV Thursday 9pm