Thursday, 8 January 2015

Don't Bring Back Borstal; But We can Learn Something from It.

Stimulated by ITV’s new series  Bring Back Borstal,  I spent a couple of hours yesterday at the National Archives in Kew reading annual reports from the 1930’s and 1940’s of the  Borstal Association- the organisation  responsible for the after care of boys (and later girls) leaving borstals.  The reports describe the aims and routines of what was described by Sir Alexander Paterson in 1947 as “one of the great Christian adventures of British education”… a chain of very happy uphill schools where the stronger men want to help and teach and train the weaker boys”. The adventure spread across the Empire. In 2011 I visited Kaduna borstal in Nigeria where young men continue learn a trade and work instead in a much more purposeful environment than prison.  Yet graffiti around the place showed that the lads could not wait to get out.

Former Borstal assistant governor David Wilson- the brains behind the TV series – thinks the approach could work with today’s British tearaways.  I have already expressed my doubts about a) whether Borstals were as successful as claimed b) the comparability of inter war borstal boys with today’s young offenders and c) the encouragement of a dangerous narrative that sees the answer to youth crime as lying in closed institutions which however benign in intent almost invariably involve sub cultures of violence and brutality. The borstal at Chelmsford,- for those whose post release license had been revoked-  actually set out to provide a “life of Spartan discipline”, providing …”a shock to the lad which was both stern and salutary.”

On effectiveness, Wilson reports that in the Thirties, 70 per cent of those who underwent a borstal sentence never reoffended. In fact the Borstal Association report for 1947 gives a detailed table showing that between 1936 and 1946 the percentages of those discharged who were not reconvicted ranged from 53.8% to 63%. Interestingly the commentary states that “if those who are reconvicted once and then settle down are included as potential successes, it may fairly be said that out of every ten persons discharged some seven or eight appear to be restored to good citizenship”.

This early adoption of a desistance approach is a surely a credit to the Borstal Association but it complicates comparison with present day evaluations of success and failure. So too perhaps does the observation from the Director of Borstal Administration in 1947 that “a certain number abscond and when as sometimes happens they also break into neighbouring houses, there is natural public indignation.” That certain number (“small” according to the Director) appears to have averaged at more than one escape or abscond attempt a day among a population of 1800.

Complicating as well is the question of the nature of the young people being sent to institutions. In 1938, the boys at Rochester are “in the main …of a type who have not gone very far towards a life of crime. The large majority responds to training almost at once.” Feltham catered “for lads not too experienced in crime”. By contrast, the most recent inspection of Feltham’s young adult side found more than half of the young offenders had already been in custody at least once. At Rochester it was two thirds.

The fact that today’s YOI offenders are very much more challenging than their borstal counterparts of yesteryear is not only a problem for comparative research. It throws into question whether key parts of the borstal philosophy could conceivably be implemented safely when risks of bullying and absconding are likely to be so much higher, levels of mental health problems more widespread and gang affiliation more common.

And yet there are some things that our youth system could learn from the past. Some are specific. At borstals, the governor wrote to the parents of each young person telling them about the establishment and asking for their cooperation in the work with their son.  Surely with today’s technology such communication should happen as a matter of course. At North Sea camp “staff and lads eat the same meals at the same tables”, something I saw in a German youth prison in 2012 but would be deemed impossible in the UK. Others lessons are more general;  the focus for example on learning vocational skills and doing paid work; the range of sporting and cultural activities on offer. After care combining official supervision and befriending from local voluntary committees seems to have been vigorous, practical and supportive; finding lodgings and a job and providing tools and companionship. In 1936 more jobs were reportedly found than there were lads under supervision- a major achievement, if true, in the year of the Jarrow crusade.
While much of the activity carried on in the daily life of the borstal - which we will no doubt see over the course of the series- may seem dated, irrelevant and middle class, the principle of helping young people to change should perhaps not be so easily discounted. Paterson wrote in 1947 "the borstal boy, right or wrong weak or foolish, nuisance or danger is still a british boy".

Omit the "british" and such a principle still has value,as much perhaps  to those working with young offenders in the community as those in custody. Inspiring young people to change is something best done outside institutions.   So let’s not Bring Back Borstal but instead apply the optimism and purposefulness of its proponents to work in a more suitable setting.

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