Punched in the Face with Happiness

Bring back Borstal?

Seriously? Surely no one in their right mind would want to bring back that discredited regime that was brutal, oppressive and even abusive before it was finally shut down. I have to admit my prejudice may be over-informed by the film ‘Scum’ that traumatised me in my teenage years but even so, you can’t be serious?

Yet there it was; an ITV programme detailing an experiment of going back to theborstall original idea for Borstal in the 1930’s – (complete with period clothing!). It seems the original idea wasn’t so bad after all and it’s later manifestations were a far cry from what was intended. I even found myself thinking – this could work! What was happening to me?  I’ve always had serious questions about the value and purpose of prison and custodial sentencing for young people, based not just on theory but from working with young offenders and visiting young people in Young Offender Institutions. And now I’m thinking, there may be some merit in this approach!

So what has changed my view? Largely the observations of Professor David Wilson, criminologist and previous Prison Governor who masterminded the experiment for TV but also watching the impact of the regime on the young men involved and hearing their stories. It seemed to me that much of what was said described principles of best practice for any work with young people, be it youth work, social work or similar profession. Somehow we seem to lose sight of this in our everyday work with young people who commit criminal offences and think different rules apply.

First the key component was the relationship of the staff and the young men. This was clearly a relationship based on authority with a clear hierarchy but nevertheless the staff aimed to get to know the young men and treated them with respect. There was consistency in the staff who were there and a concern to work with them. As David Wilson commented,

‘the system had no merit without the staff; it was firmly believed that it was the men who would change the hearts and minds of the lads.’

One young man was overwhelmed by the concern showed by staff who went the extra mile to help him and described it as ‘like being punched in the face with happiness’

Secondly, the Borstal engaged with the local community. The young men were involved in community work that brought them into contact with local people. This was not just isolated community service but presented opportunities for conversations with, for example, elderly people in a home. This chance to listen to and learn from grandparent figures was probably lacking in many of the lives of these young men and the older folk were not too scared to ask direct questions of these young men. Wilson observed how prison walls not only keep people in but also shut the community out and they end up thinking that they are all monsters. Most of them however are not, just ‘some young men needing a chance’.

Thirdly there was education and preparation for future employment. All the young men were sent out to work – again outside the Borstal – engaging with local workers and learning practical skills and the soft skills needed for working with others. During the last week, the young men were prepared for interviews, and then met with potential employers for work once they left the programme. These were employers who were used to working with young people with a difficult past and all the young men were offered jobs, much to the surprise of some who had never been able to find employment before. This is in stark contrast to the lack of preparation and concern for prisoners on their release in the current system. I heard the other day of a young man who turned up at our local food bank having just been released from prison – he had no home to go to, no job, no money and no food. Is it any wonder these people end up back in the institutions that they know will provide for them?

Fourth, there was a pervading sense of hope; a sense that change was possible for these young men often in spite of their own view of themselves. The challenge to confront themselves and to take responsibility for their present and past was often difficult but it opened up the possibility of a new future and a fresh start.  One young man mused that he could not imagine how any one might see him as a ‘good guy’ given his past behaviour and stated he ‘was terrified of going back to the person I was’. His personal lack of hope contrasted with the optimism of the staff who saw great potential in this young man.

It is too early to say whether the programme worked for these young men but the signs were good. In the 1930’s, of those who went through Borstal, 70% never re-offended; significantly this is almost exactly the opposite to the rate of re-offending that prison produces today. Wilson acknowledges it is cheaper and easier to lock people in cells than it is to engage them in meaningful work and challenge but it is only so for the short-term. Prison does not work in bringing about the deeper change in character and lifestyle that is needed and this programme suggested that alternative ways could work.

Do I want to bring back Borstal?  No, I’m still not convinced it will work but what we do need are programmes that challenge and support young people to take responsibility; schemes that integrate them in their local community and provide them with employment and purpose. That’s a role for us and our communities and maybe if we could do that then we wouldn’t need borstals or any other institution for the majority of young offenders.

See also blog by Professor Wilson:


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