Thursday, February 19, 2015

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Borstals… Bring on the Clowns!

Alex Cavendish causes his readers to reflect that some programme makes could do with a stint in Borstal rather than the people they seek to portray. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

The latest ITV offering on the subject of our failing criminal justice system is Bring Back Borstal, a sort of dysfunctional Big Brother where bad lads in their 20s wear short trousers and play up in front of the camera. I watched the first episode and quickly realised that this was twaddle masquerading as serious comment on how we could better deal with our young offenders.

Kent: where it all started
Perhaps the worst aspect of the whole show – and I use that term intentionally – is that what was portrayed on television bore little or no relation to the reality of borstal institutions, either back in the 1930s or up to the time of their abolition and replacement with youth custody centres in 1982. It was also somewhat disconcerting to see a former prison governor – now a respected academic criminologist – David Wilson, fronting the performance and thus risking giving it some misguided veneer of intellectual credibility. Professor Wilson is also a former trustee of the Howard League for Penal Reform and really should know better.

Fortunately, I was never a borstal boy myself, although I have a close family member who was a governor grade at two very well-known borstals in the 1970s – both still exist as dysfunctional Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and are regularly panned in alarming reports by HM Inspectorate of Prisons. I’ve listened to my own relative’s horror stories of the bullying, self-harm, suicides and how lads who ran away were punished. By all accounts, the regime back then was pretty nasty, brutal and – for some – short, as they ‘escaped’ by killing themselves.

A real borstal in the 1940s
Although he was an ex-serviceman himself who had joined up as a teenager, my relative really didn’t approve of what he saw going on in his own establishments – both the brutality of some of the staff, as well as the macho culture of violence and exploitation that prevailed among the inmates. By then it really had become a violent, dog-eat-dog world where the ‘taxing’ (levying of protection money) and bullying of the weaker boys was thoroughly institutionalised. He told me on many occasions about how the bigger, tougher lads – dorm captains or ‘daddies’ – actually imposed much of the informal and violent discipline in the dormitories with the tacit approval and collusion of the housemasters.

"I'm the daddy now!"
I remember that after he had watched the infamous borstal film Scum, directed by Alan Clarke, he observed that although it had been somewhat sensationalised, he recognised many of the typical characters, especially the ‘wing daddies’ who terrorised the younger, weaker lads. Totally disillusioned by his experiences, my relative opted for early retirement before borstals were converted into youth custody centres.

I did, however, have three personal insights into borstals prior to my own time inside, where I also met a fair number of borstal ‘graduates’ – now men in their 50s or older, most of whom had extensive criminal records behind them. When I was still at school, one of my close friends had an elder brother who was regarded as a bit of a ‘bad lad’. In his mid-teens he smoked, drank, took soft drugs and was a bit of a bully. He was eventually expelled from his school.

I only really remember him well from visiting my friend’s home on one occasion when I was about seven or eight. He hit me hard round the ear for nothing other than the pleasure of hearing me cry. He really wasn’t a nice person and during his mid-teens he ended up in trouble with the law for various minor offences until he finally pinched a car and went joyriding. He was sent to a borstal in the early 1970s – I believe it was Guys Marsh, although I’m not certain 40 years on.

His brother rarely spoke of him, but after his release I knew that he’d returned home to his family. He had been damaged by his borstal experience, which I later discovered had included being subjected to severe sexual abuse (whether by other youths or members of staff I never found out). He resumed drinking heavily and shortly afterwards was found drowned in the local harbour. It was never established whether this had been due to suicide or an accidental fall when drunk, so the coroner returned an open verdict. He was around 23 years old when he died.

Boys at North Sea Camp in 1935
My next exposure to borstal boys was back in the late 1970s when I was a teenager myself. I was working as a volunteer on an archaeological excavation that was going on right next to what was then the borstal farm. A work party of boys from the institution was assigned to help us move large piles of earth in wheelbarrows under the supervision of two grim-faced officers who scowled at us almost as much as they did at the youths under their direct charge.

I spent a couple of days working alongside these lads and had some chance to chat with them during breaks. They seemed very subdued. They all had roughly cropped heads – the infamous ‘bad borstal boy’ haircut – some had fading black eyes, visible bruising or scabs on their hands and arms and all appeared to be very wary of the two screws watching over them. I asked them about how they were finding borstal. “It’s fucking horrible, mate,” they whispered.

Their main interest in me was whether I smoked and had any tobacco to share with them, but they also wondered why the hell I was doing manual labour without having to be forced to work. I must admit that I found myself feeling very sorry for them, especially as they were around my own age.

My final personal experience inside a borstal was to actually visit the local establishment several times in 1980. This came about because I was a member of a youth club that was asked by the governor to come in and spend some time – mainly playing board games and table tennis or reading – with some of the younger borstal lads.

A young Ray Winstone in Scum
Just going into the establishment was daunting, including being body searched by staff and getting dire warnings about not smuggling in any kind of contraband – tobacco, money or sweets. “Or you’ll find yourself on the wrong side of this wall doing time with these toe-rags”. No-one even mentioned drugs back then. I do remember that we were specifically instructed never to ask any of the borstal lads what crime they were in for.

We definitely didn’t get a very warm welcome from the screws on duty – I think they resented the idea of yet more teenage boys (no girls allowed on these visits for obvious reasons) being foisted on them to supervise during association periods. Again, the lads were very quiet during these sessions and scared of even looking up. I played draughts with one who asked me in a whisper whether I smoked, which I didn’t. It seemed that the main obsession was getting tobacco.

Still from ITV's Bring Back Borstal
It wasn’t a ‘normal’ youth club atmosphere by any stretch of the imagination. I once got told off by a screw for putting my hand in my own pocket in case I was passing contraband. It wasn’t a nice experience for a law-abiding teenager like me.

I think the highlight of the evening for the inmates was getting a mug of weak orange squash and a biscuit. Again, I found myself feeling sorry for these drably uniformed kids as most of them were aged 15 or 16, although some looked a lot younger.

We repeated this grim experience three or four times before the experiment was discontinued. I suspect that the screws put a stop to it, probably citing security concerns, although I also think that they didn’t want nosey outsiders – like us – who they couldn’t control talking to the inmates in their charge during association periods.

Another view of borstal
So, prior to ending up inside an adult prison myself, that was the extent of my own knowledge of our borstals. Probably a bit more than the average member of the public, but hardly extensive or in-depth. I’d also read Brendan Behan’s famous autobiographical account Borstal Boy, as well as having seen the 1962 film of the Alan Sillitoe novel The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, which made borstal seem like being at a minor public school – which seems to have been the original idea when the first institution at Borstal in Kent was set up back in 1902.

Years later, while in prison, I met fellow cons who had ‘progressed’ through the entire criminal justice system: approved schools, borstals, detention centres and finally adult jails. Some of them were willing to discuss their experiences, but others didn’t want to for reasons I can only guess. However, I did get the impression that many of the real horrors had been inflicted by fellow borstal boys on each other, rather than by the screws or other staff.

Violence and intimidation seemed to have been rife, along with extortion (‘taxing’). Few felt that they had emerged from the experience better people than they were when they were sentenced to ‘borstal training’, although a couple did recall that they had enjoyed the sport, especially really violent games such as British Bulldog or Murderball (a kind of no rules basketball). Clearly, since all the people I was talking to were back in prison – some serving life or very long sentences – the deterrent effect, if any, of their stint in a borstal had been limited.

Volunteers on Bring Back Borstal
What did become clear, however, was that detention centres in the 1980s were where much of the real physical, mental – and sexual – abuse seems to have taken place under cover of the Thatcher-era ‘short, sharp shock’, introduced by the Conservative government in its Criminal Justice Act (1982). This provided for young offenders aged 14 to 21 to be sent to the new detention centres for up to four months for minor offences. It remains to be seen whether more of those who experienced this regime will start to disclose the extent of the alleged abuses that were committed.

I think that the real disappointment I felt after watching the new ITV Bring Back Borstal show is that it was a missed opportunity to really explore what interventions would help young offenders turn their lives around. Hearing snippets from some of their life stories during the show you might conclude that the sort of methods being proposed by ‘let’s pretend borstal governor’ David Wilson were far too little, too late for many of these adult males, some of whom were already dads themselves.

These borstal ‘boys’ were actually troubled young men, some of whom had already been in a YOI or adult jail. Treating them like 1930s teenagers was never really going to achieve very much.

Borstal 'governor': Prof David Wilson
The sense of unreality was compounded by the fact that these were all volunteers who could get on their toes as soon as the going got a little bit tough – and several did so, much to the obvious exasperation of Professor Wilson who one suspects might have liked to have had the power to keep them all there by force until the end of his little ‘experiment’. As we all know, real incarceration just isn’t like that. There is no choice to go home from prison because a screw yelled at you or tipped you out of bed early in the morning. Imprisonment is all about not having choices and being forced to comply or face serious consequences... including real physical pain.

Scene from ITV's Bring Back Borstal
Moreover, all this nonsense was being recorded on camera, thus providing an ideal opportunity for every class clown to continue playing up, secure in the knowledge that his mates back home would be having a good laugh with him over a few beers when the show was eventually broadcast. All of this really writes itself and, to be honest, the whole experiment seems doomed from the start. I really can’t see how it can get any better in future episodes.

This was a missed opportunity. We are in desperate need of a very well-informed debate about youth justice in the UK – and about the lack of positive adult male role models for many troubled boys and young men – but sadly this fanciful punishment-fest TV show wasn’t it. 


AM said...

Although a powerful movie, when I watched Scum there was nothing in it that surprised me. It reinforces my contention that prisons have long been major sites of serious prison staff abuse. Yet there is a glaring silence and few if any calls for a root and branch historical inquiry.