Would bringing back the methods from Borstal Prison solve the current crisis in UK prisons? Professor David Wilson discusses.

In what can only be described as one of the worst inspection reports on a Young Offender Institution (YOI) of all time, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, yesterday described HMYOI Feltham as “unacceptably violent” and later told the BBC that “if you were a parent with a child in Feltham, you’d be terrified.”

Violence within Feltham was common, staff use of batons “unprecedentedly high” and the young men being locked up there had little confidence that staff could keep them safe.

You will read these first two paragraphs and have a variety of reactions – from indifference and “that’s what I would expect”, to “we’ve been here before” and “what can we do?”  Some will see what happens inside Feltham as the consequence of locking up difficult and violent young men – often who are then managed by keeping them in their cells for long periods of the day, with little hope of work, education, or even of company. Others will simply be glad that they are locked up and no longer in the community.

Whilst understandable, these reactions miss the point because, frankly, all of this is scandalous, both in relation to what is happening within Feltham and then what will happen when these young men are released back into the community.  With no jobs, poor education and social skills and often no place to live, 4 out of 5 of them will have re-offended within two years.

We like to think that History is about progress; about becoming better; being more civilised.  As far as helping violent young men change their lives, nothing can be further from the truth, as I have tried to show in ITVs Bring Back Borstal. The series is set in the 1930s heyday of Borstal – the way that we used to deal with young men who committed crime, between 1908 and 1983, before it was replaced by Youth Custody Centres which were, in turn, replaced by YOIs like Feltham.

In its heyday, Borstal wasn’t about “tough love”, or some other ambiguous phrase which simply means being uncaring, but about a full day of work, education, physical education and developing these skills within the wider community.

Far from being hidden away, the Borstal was very much part of the local community, where the “Borstal Boys” worked, played rugby, worshipped, and engaged in community projects.  Re-offending rates were low after release and I think that this had something to do with how those who underwent a Borstal training developed social capital.  In other words, they knew how to be the men that they wanted to be, rather than the offenders that they had been.

The Second World War, and our reaction to the war, saw Borstal’s glow fade and slowly become undermined by Detention Centres of the “short, sharp, shock” variety, which were introduced in 1948 and lasted until 1988.  And, gradually, the more structured failures of Borstal became notorious with Alan Sillitoe’s angry novella The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and more controversially with Scum.  Nor can there being any doubt that there were some who were genuinely damaged by their experiences of Borstal in the 1970s.

That’s not what Bring Back Borstal has been about.  Rather, it has been trying to ask the viewer to decide what is the best way to deal with violent, damaged, young men – many of whom have often been notorious in their local communities.  Lock them up in the cells for 20 hours a day, or give them education, exercise and a skill that they can use when they return to the community?  Help them to become better men, or more sophisticated offenders?  I know which side I’m on.


Bring Back Borstal ‘ is on ITV, Thursdays at 9pm.

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David Wilson

David Wilson

Programme Director MA CJPP/ Criminology
David Wilson

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