Saturday, 3 January 2015

Bring Back Borstal : Serious Policy or Punishment Porn?

As a student in the early eighties, I remember showing a group of young offenders the film “Scum”, the violent drama set in a borstal institution.  The idea was to stimulate a discussion about what might help our intermediate treatment group to put their offending behind them. We were aghast when after a graphic scene of racial violence, an Asian young man said that now he understood why we were showing it. He more than implied that we were somehow endorsing   brutality as a way of dealing with delinquency and even worse approving of the way a white gang had beaten up a black one.

Maybe part of our thinking had been to concentrate the minds of the lads about the reality of custodial sentences from which they had for the time being been spared- after all it was said that everything in the film had actually happened sometime and somewhere.  But our alternative to prison project was all about keeping young people out of custody, applying a social work approach through community based supervision and tackling the racial discrimination which was increasingly coming to light in criminal justice.

This sort of fundamental misunderstanding must be a risk in Professor David Wilson’s television project Bring Back Borstal which starts on primetime ITV next week.  I was surprised to read in the Daily Mail that the former vice chair of the Howard League  believes cold dormitories, icy showers and scrubbing floors can rehabilitate young offenders better than today’s soft young offender institutions.  We’ll have to wait until Thursday to see if that really is his view. But presumably by going to the effort of recreating a 1930’s institution and recruiting troubled young men to experience its regime for a month, he believes at least that there may be something to learn. While I will reserve judgment until I've seen the first episode at least, I have serious doubts about whether there’s anything that we can or should apply from such a bygone era.

For one thing, there’s a question about how successful borstals actually were in rehabilitating young offenders. A leading study of the system reported in 1973 that “during the 1930's Borstals appear to have enjoyed outstanding success, rehabilitating a claimed 70% of trainees”. But the claim of "phenomenal" results is not referenced, other than to figures from the Borstal Association- an organisation providing after care support to those released from the institution- not perhaps the most objective source of data .

Even if re-conviction rates were comparatively low, they  may well be the result of  selection effects. Borstal training was always one of several custodial sentencing options designed for those individuals deemed most likely to respond to the training on offer. Comparing the success rate to the 70% failure rate in today’s institutions which take allcomers, is looking at apples and oranges.

It’s also true that re-offending rates among borstal leavers increased substantially between the 1930’s and 1970’s, in large part because, according to the 1973 study of a “deterioration in the quality of boys”. This unhappy phrase alerts us to the fact that the very welcome decline in the use of custody for young men in recent years has meant that those who do continue to be locked up present many more challenges than the borstal boys of yesteryear. Levels of drug and alcohol misuse, mental health difficulties, and gang affiliations make the idea of reinstating dormitory accommodation in young offender establishments irresponsible if not dangerous. A much more realistic set of recommendations are found in Barrow Cadbury's 2013 report.


But the bigger problem is that programmes like this give succour to those who want to roll back the clock to a purported golden age where simple virtues of exercise, hard work and strict education could allegedly knock yobs into shape. It’s a dangerous fantasy – or as the Guardian TV guide puts it - punishment porn. This would be bad enough in itself , but with the government on the verge of creating a so called secure college which almost every expert thinks a disaster in the making , it could have a highly damaging impact in the real world.

1 comment:

  1. Well put.

    I think you are absolutely spot-on with your worry about the agenda that this will play into. It will go some way to shaping public perception and create a simplistic demand for a return to this type of regime which politicians, looking to be tough and to cost-cut, will lap up.

    I also think, having worked in therapeutic communities for most of my adult life, that the programme is about the overt culture of borstal and will not get to grips with the sub-cultures that existed in these institutions.

    Finally, 14 participants is hardly a significant number, 4 weeks is pitifully short and, by being filmed, the Hawthorne Effect will be a major factor. This is not a serious experiment but a ratings chasing adventure.

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