|Kent: where it all started|
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|
|"I'm the daddy now!"|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
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|
|Scene from ITV's Bring Back Borstal|
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.