Friday, 9 January 2015

Bring Back Borstal

I know many readers will feel that we've overdosed on Borstal this week, but I feel I must say something about episode 1 of ITV's re-enactment series 'Bring Back Borstal', screened last night. It's been roundly condemned by a number of academics well in advance and I can understand why, not least because of the involvement of Professor David Wilson:- 

"I have held doubts about David Wilson, the so-called criminologist, for some time. He is a populist and contoversialist with a sideline in rent-a-quotes and is always on hand when the Daily Mail wants a feature. 'Punishment Porn' captures these shenanigans aptly."
"David Wilson is a joke. He masquerades as a serious academic criminologist, but in reality he just wants to get his face on TV or his name in the popular press. He is a publicity hungry pseudo-academic who is concerned only about self-promotion. Awful man."
"He has been parodied by Private Eye with them quoting 'a Criminologist' making statements like 'The perpetrator will be a loner who has a large network of friends. Extremely shy with a loud persona. Unintelligent but very bright'. Etc,etc." 
"There is always an academic willing to pin their colours to amy cause. Like the US doctor who thinks that 'gravely sick people have a duty to die'. Academic qualifications are no indicator of credibility, particularly where reality TV is concerned."
But leaving that aside, for those with long memories, this social experiment is very similar to the 'Bad Lads Army' series screened a few years ago which sought to re-create the experience of National Service from the 1950's. Just like 'Bring Back Borstal', it can't replicate all aspects of the institution it seeks to emulate because the participants are willing volunteers in a televised social experiment and can walk out at any time. But despite this, the lads soon come to realise that it is 'reality', but of a different sort to that they are used to and very strong emotions are stirred as a result.

Just as with 'Bad Lads Army', a number of the lads very soon realise that what they might have thought was going to be nothing more than a remunerated laugh, in fact quite quickly turns out to be something they can't cope with and make a rapid exit. I'm hypothesising, but I suspect in time some may come to view that the reason they often give - 'I don't like it' - sounds a bit pathetic, especially by the time their mates have watched the programme.  

The common theme with experiments like this seems to be the degree to which the young men make it plain that they are not used to hearing the word 'no' and feel completely entitled to refuse to do anything they don't like. Of course being able to come to terms with both is a very important lesson in life and it will be fascinating to see how each deals with this over the course of the series. 

Without doubt it's risky TV, and I'd be fascinated to view some of the mountain of footage left on the cutting room floor. I'd also like to know how much of the very long days were actually spent in purposeful activity. Despite the impression created, I suspect not that much, but that's TV for you. 

As a general rule, in Probation we're not allowed to take risks with clients any more. We're not even supposed to carry them in our cars, let alone take them off in a van to see the world beyond their street, so I have to admit I'm drawn to something like this simply because it's flying by the seat of your pants and experience tells me it can produce remarkable results. But for us that's all in the past - Probation is very much a risk-averse business now sadly.  

Despite the laudable aims of the Borstal system, I suspect we all know that it was traumatic and damaging for many and we shouldn't seek to airbrush that out of history. But to my mind it doesn't alter the fact that there are many positive aspects to some of the ideas and concepts that lay behind it and indeed National Service even. I'm thinking of all that sadly unfashionable character-building, team-building and confidence-building stuff such as Outward Bound, Intermediate Treatment, Sail Training Association, Scouting, Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme etc, etc. 

We know it worked in the past, broadened horizons, taught responsibility and would work again. Those long-in-the-tooth will recall Probation used to do it all, but we allowed it to get labelled as 'treats for naughty boys' and scrapped. We allowed the politicians and right-wing press to steer us down a punishment route and we ended up with bloody prison governors calling the shots in NOMS. 

I'm sure 'Bring Back Borstal' will continue to annoy many, but just like 'Bad Lads Army', I'm also fairly sure that for some of the participants it will prove a beneficial, life-changing experience and serve to remind us in the Criminal Justice System that we've still got a lot to learn about effective rehabilitation and the most appropriate treatment of young offenders.


  1. Having served a period in Borstal, last nights show worries me. It seemed in the most a reasonable approach and a discursive solution was reached at all times when things weren't going to plan.
    The general public watch, and will take it as a true representation of how borstal really was.
    Lets remember that whilst the borstal system was in operation, you could still get 6 of the best in school for forgetting your PE kit!
    Borstal was brutal, and any of the outbursts like those from the lads would have been met with a quick and physical response.
    I saw the floors been mopped!!! All cleaning of floors in borstal was done on hands and knees, a scrubbing brush and a bar of long greeny brown carbolic soap that took layers of skin from your hands. You would not be able to find a mop.
    As for David Wilson, well I think hes just become the Jeremy Kyle of criminology.
    Borstal in short was just sadistic darwinism. If the inviornment that you introduce a "species' to, is violent, brutal and unforgiving, then those who do best are those that are brutal, violent and unfogiving.
    I am (and have been for many years), in favour of some sort of National Service being returned. Nit to be sent to Afganistan or anything, but for all the reasons noted in your post, I think it have a significant impact on reducing the prison population, and a benificial impact on the individual.
    But borstal? That should remain locked away in our dark past.

  2. This is almost an aside - I had a lot of contact with Borstals and Borstal boys and one Borstal girl between 1975 and 1983.

    I recall as I visited 'my wings' at Hindley at one time in the early 1980s, usually once or twice a week - it was expected at certain times of the day to see young men - most were 17-19 year olds, on their hands and knees scrubbing, or polishing the floors quietly and systematically - without complaint. Such action was accepted, not welcomed but usually accepted and the boringness of it may have been something of a spur to apply for a rare place on one of the trade training courses - which were far more interesting and useful, such as welding, painting and decorating or motor mechanics - it was possible to come out with a regular certificate, issued as if it had been studied for at the normal site of the awarding college - the local technical college.

    When I walked down the streets, in 'my' districts of north Liverpool - Vauxhall, Everton, Anfield, Edge Hill, Scotland Road, and Walton - there were many streets of terraced houses fronting onto the street with no garden or yard and a prominent front step and still a few that were routinely scrubbed and shined on hands and knees by the occupants - so the scrubbing of the borstal boys too, to some extent had normality about it and I do not think was usually actively resented, though it was far from welcomed - I do not recall the so called 'Trainees' complaining about it - whereas they did complain about being unemployed and so 'earning' less than the floor scrubbers. - It was a different era and needs to be understood as such.


    1. CONTINUED: -

      I agree about the issue of the word 'no' - subsequent generations have been subjected to much more persistent & subtly persuasive advertising, than that generation was. It was not until the latter sixties that we began to have credit cards (Most did not have bank accounts even) - at which time I was working as a bank clerk and cashier and issuing & processing the damn things.

      My bank - Barclays was the first British Bank to get involved with Barclaycard -

      (my research reveals) that in - "1973 Barclaycard is first to offer women a card in their own names" -

      That must seem shocking to probation folk with an intake now of mostly women workers. Their advertising was rather subtle - "I never go anywhere without my Barclaycard" - she says here

      Then coming later to the market and trying to catch up were the other big banks Midland, NatWest and RBS, with their Access Credit card and the more aggressive advertising catch phrase (that I recall disapproving of then) "Taking the Waiting out of Wanting" - (that is still a trademarked term - to this day).

      But ultimately it was all down to public authorities giving the public what they thought was best and I read "It was not until 1967 that the Bank of England permitted 'Extended Credit', and until 8th November 1967 Barclaycard balances had to be settled in full when the bill arrived. From 8th November 1967, though, the concept of revolving credit and minimum payments became available."

      It was a different era and so accurate comparison with now is impossible - I am not sure to what extent Parliament 'allowed' the Bank of England to start granting extended credit but without we would not have had Wonga and all the evils that are related!

      I suspect the advertising that developed from that permission by the Bank of England made it harder for us all to hear the word 'no' and especially for parents feeling deprived by circumstance to say it to their children - then there was drugs - that got worse after the 1971 misuse of drugs act that seems to have encouraged the increased criminal trading of illicit substances and like the 'extended credit' continues today. So the probation officer of now is dealing with children of parents who were subject to less stringent social restrictions than my era of probation workers (starting in 1975) were.

      Is it relevant - what do you think, maybe I am just meandering aimlessly with irrelevant comparisons - I am not sure?


    2. My wife ( we have been together since December 1964) commented on the impact of the cashless society.

      Back then, money was more tangible - now it is just numbers on paper - in many situations - then there was the move away from weekly pay and Benefits stopped coming by queuing up at the post office once a week on giro day - normal domestic and social life is so different nowadays for every one, I do hope all this is taken into account on top of the unreality of the actual Back to Borstal experience of the TV programme - which I did not watch!.

  3. MoJ pulls the wool over its own eyes in G4S and Serco contracts

  4. No matter which stage of the outsourcing process you look at, the same qualities are on show: incompetence, lack of interest, and failure of accountability.

    The Ministry of Justice's inability to properly scrutinise its contracts and operations with private firms like Serco, G4S and Capita is well documented. The former two overcharged the department for years on electronic tagging contracts before Chris Grayling had to call in the Serious Fraud Office, for instance. But it has now emerged that the department doesn't even bother keeping track of the companies' activities in the tendering process.

    A set of parliamentary questions from shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter to ministers at the department asked how often Serco, G4S and Capita had tendered for contracts since May 2010. The answer, from part-time prisons minister Andrew Selous, was the standard MoJ cut-and-paste refusal:

    "To find out on how many occasions G4S and Serco have tendered for contracts let by the Department in each year since May 2010, would entail indentifying [sic] and then contacting all individuals responsible for the management of contracts. The individuals would then need to search electronic and manual records since May 2010 to determine whether G4S and Serco tendered for their areas contracts. This would incur disproportionate costs as it would exceed the costs threshold."

    1. Dear Mr Selous - its a pity such hard-nosed cost-conscious decision-making wasn't applied when your department decided to use public funds for the TR process as a whole (e.g. consultants at £15M & escalating), to the costs of transporting your staff around ...NOMS, etc etc etc ... or to the costs of fruitless legal challenges.

  5. Hi there Jim, I am about to start a PQF and have been reading up on all the changes to probation. Your blog has been very informative and I really appreciate your perspective. There's one area of TR I'm struggling to find out much about and I was wondering if you could shed some light on it.
    The new CRC's are going to be incentivised by 'payment by results'. How is this going to work? What form do the payments come in? Is it just more funding or something a bit more convoluted? Have the MoJ released any information about this that I have missed?

  6. Aha nevermind, I've just found a section in the justice select committee's interim report devoted to the payment by results scheme,

    1. I do not know in detail how PbR works - the calculations will need to be about something measurable which in my experience is complex and inexact regarding rehabilitated lives.

      Pbr Has been a frequent topic over the period of this blog.

      From a search I found this

      The person who has written much about it is Russell Webster who I suspect was or maybe is in the pay of the PbR advocates although he has explored it in some detail.

      He has long blocked me on Twitter so I do not see all his outpourings now. I see some of his blog posts and would encourage they are searched.

      However, I am very dubious about the comparative value of a PGD qualification because it does not allow one to work as a social worker, whereas the full professional SW training qualification is still accepted for probation officer jobs.

      This seems to be a link to the newish college of social work's education website which seems to be comprehensive with links to the various training schemes.

    2. Thank you for that Andrew, thats really helpful. I'll take a look at that and the social work website when i have time.

  7. Do you realise it won't be long before the MoJ goes digital? Here's the MoJ:

    "Challenges and goals - Over time, the MOJ intranet has become complicated to navigate and dense with content, which has led to a sub-optimal user experience. One of the main reasons for this is the number of organisational changes that have happened over recent years. As a result, the biggest challenge facing us is how to bring a number of intranet sites, currently housed on separate and outdated systems, onto a single platform.

    These are the goals we’ll be working towards.

    Short-term - update the look, feel and navigation of the main headquarters (HQ) intranet; simplify all the content, giving users only what they need to know in order to perform tasks; ensure that all information is up-to-date and clearly presented; improve the search function

    Long-term - offer a single platform on which the MOJ and all its affiliated organisations can host their content; implement a new hosting solution, contributing towards estimated savings of up to £900,000 a year; ensure the intranet becomes the gateway into all the MOJ’s internal digital services; enable every employee across the MOJ to work more efficiently

    Where to start? Our first priority has been the users. Speaking to a large number of MOJ employees about how they use the intranet, and what they expect from it in the future, has provided us with valuable insights.

    Analytics have played their part too, helping us understand which pages are the most visited, the search terms employees use and which documents are downloaded the most."

    Can't wait... wonder how much this is costing?

  8. Give users all they need to know to do the job......puppets, process maps and ignorance.....just do what you are told, you don't need to know anything else, or think for yourselves or have any other information other than how to do the job and perhaps how 'we' will monitor and assess you... but heh ' we' are only doing this to help you....

  9. When you have a go on the Epic intranet (those in the CRCs, not sure about NPS), have a look at the 'Alcohol at work' Probation Instruction. Basically, you - the putative drunk - are to be kept in a secure place, away from prying colleagues, whilst a private contractor is called using a pin no. held only by someone at director level, to come and test you. I'm not making this up. If you walk off, you can be deemed to have committed a disciplinary offence. If you are a diabetic, for Gawd's sake, tell at least one of your colleagues. You could die waiting for the contractor.

    1. But surely if you were drunk at work some action should result?

  10. On top of Manchester's woes I now hear that West Yorkshire CRC are lurching towards crisis. They tried to recruit more POs but failed. Now they are on the verge of losing most of their POs to the NPS, just as the U12 months chaos is about to descend. Instead of preparing for it the CEO's deputy dawg is seemingly banging on about OASys performance and stressing out the staff. Not sure how Purple Ronnie is going to sure-up the impending doom when they come in.

  11. Shore up the dam....even

  12. Bit of a rant I'm afraid Jim, here we go...
    Conservatives to announce in their manifesto that Public Sector workers will require 40% of union membership to vote in favour of any future strike action.
    Also, just wondering after Circle "withdraw" from their contract to run Hitchingbrooke Hospital due to escalating costs making it not profitable....what happens in a similar situation with TR contracts? We know to favour the businesses Chris Grayling has put in a clause ensuring contracts will run for 10 years to prevent a future Labour government cancelling the contracts but does that also bind the hand of the businesses to run the contract for 10 years irrespective of profitability? I think the answer could be very interesting indeed because all it would take to negate TR would be to ensure those contracts were not profitable....just saying'

    1. I remember in the justice select committee NOMS advising that the private companies can sell the contacts on if they want to i.e. to G4S.