1980s >> 1980 >> no-908-april-1980

Lock up your youngsters

Like reading off a barometer, it is possible to judge the fortunes of a government by the intensity of its search for a scapegoat. Labour governments between the wars blamed their failures on a conspiracy by international bankers bent on the destruction of a movement dedicated to the overthrow of the capitalist system of society (yes, we are talking about the likes of Ramsay Macdonald, Jimmy Thomas, Philip Snowden. . .). Times have changed; the last Labour government directed none of its venom at conspiratorial bankers but spent its final months in office castigating the trade unions and any workers who wanted more pay than Denis Healey was prepared to allow them.


Now, the Thatcher government is coming under the first pressures. Policies which the Tories once propounded so confidently have become tentative or are quietly forgotten; dissension among ministers is being leaked to the public; the Chancellor has warned us that we must wait another ten years for the promised prosperity and the standing of the Leader herself is being questioned. Now, as every by-election becomes a nervous uncertainty, the Tories are worriedly trying to rally their support and are producing their own scapegoats.


Just like the Callaghan government, the Conservatives are blaming those same greedy, lazy workers, now urged on by “wreckers” like Derek Robinson. Then there is the Social Security scrounger whose activities, according to one High Court judge (who of course has no knowledge in the matter) are “. . . rife from one end of the British Isles to the other”. Naturally, not all scroungers come under the lash of a judge’s tongue—for example Mark Thatcher, who touted for £10,000 so that he could spend his time driving a motor car.


Now the scapegoat’s whole purpose in life is to submit to being the focus of popular anger and frustration. Particularly well suited to this role is another Tory favourite—the juvenile delinquent. He (most of them are male) is usually less politely described as young thug, hooligan or yobbo. The activities of these youngsters, if we are to believe people like the newspaper reporters, are very much a matter of fashion. A few years ago they seemed to devote themselves to smashing up telephone kiosks and there may well have been a judge then who declared that not one kiosk was in working order from one end of the British Isles to the other. Now, it seems, the delinquents concentrate on displays of violence at football matches (often described as “mindless”—perhaps because, unlike the boorish behaviour or some of the players, it is not lucrative) and mugging frail old ladies on their way home with their pension.


“Short and Sharp”
Well the Tories have been ready for a long time to deal with the young hooligan and their declared policy is to set up two special Detention Centres where the regime will be, in the words of Home Secretary Whitelaw, “brisk”. In these Centres—prisons for young people, really—the treatment will be a “short, sharp shock”, based on the theory that violent tendencies can be checked or even eradicated by counter violence. This argument is not so popular at other times, for example when a government is persuading its workers to exert organised violence on other workers abroad, but never mind. Whitelaw’s policy was met with orgasmically passionate responses on both sides, with the Tories baying their approval and the Lefties and the penal reformers howling their scepticism.


One fact which may well be overlooked is that Detention Centres are not peculiarly Tory inventions. In fact, they were originally set up by a Labour government under the Criminal Justice Act 1948, which established twenty of them, scattered all over England and Wales. Designed to take boys between the ages of 14 and 21, the Centres worked a regime brisk enough to satisfy the most fervent flogger and hanger. An official publication—The Sentence of the Court—A Handbook for Courts on the Treatment of Offenders (1964)—described them in this way:


“The regime in detention centres is brisk and firm; there is a strong emphasis on hard work, and the highest possible standards of discipline and achievement, behaviour and manners are insisted upon. An offender will almost invariably regard detention as a punitive experience.”


What this meant was that the day for the inmates started very early in the morning, when they were dragged from their beds and made to run a five mile course, no matter how unfit they might be. At some centres, a gruesome team system ensured that any flagger was subjected to some pretty physical encouragement from his fellow inmates to finish the course. At one centre (which had been notorious, during the war, as a place where British intelligence officers tortured spies) this course was constructed in a specially humiliating and exhausting way; the boys had to run their five miles up and down between two stakes set 100 yards apart.


Then there was grinding, monotonous work like concrete moulding and metal recovery, with periods of hard physical exercises. Overlaying all this was a ceaseless harassing of the boys, with sadistic prison officers nagging and baiting them until some of them broke. One detainee described it as never being left alone from the moment he got up until he fell asleep at night. The effect of this was that the boys finished their sentences fitter then they had ever been in their lives—but also harder, with a cynical edge and often with the status of a prematurely experienced con.


It is not surprising that the Detention Centres failed to have any special effect on juvenile crime; youngsters did not emerge from their “short, sharp shock” with any resolve never to fall foul of the law again. Many of them progressed through Borstal to prison, to longer and longer sentences. One excuse offered for this was that the courts were not using the Centres as they were supposed to be used; they were sending to detention boys whose lives had been a succession of shocks, to the extent that they were inured to any more. Partly in response to this, the style at the Centres began to change, with less emphasis on the hard physical regime and more on “understanding” the inmate and getting to grips with his problems. As this must have meant getting to grips with the problems of the very capitalist social system it cannot be wondered at, that it proved beyond the wit of the prison officers.
The change in style was set out in a later (1978) edition of The Sentence of the Court: “The regime in the detention centres is intended to be constructive, with firm discipline and a strong emphasis on education . . . the punitive clement of the sentence is regarded as fulfilled by the deprivation of the offender’s liberty.” Whatever satisfaction this relaxation gave to the reformers it had little effect on the inmates. A recent (February) report by New Approaches to Juvenile Crime—a combine of eight bodies dealing with young offenders said that 76 per cent of ex-Detention Centre boys were convicted of another offence within two years. The fact that they are ineffective does little to lessen the popularity of the Centres; between 1969 and 1978 the numbers sent to them rose from 2,288 to 6,303.


Public relations exercise
Whitelaw’s proposals are partly a reaction to this situation, as well as a widespread disillusionment with the “social work”, as opposed to the “penal” approach to crime. But in reality what the Tories are planning is little more than a public relations exercise—the setting up of only two Detention Centres on the original pattern, compared to the twenty which operated in that way before. Even the silliest Tory would not suggest that that is going to have any dramatic effect on the figures of juvenile crime, even supposing that the theories of the floggers had any evidence to support them.


What it does provide, though, is yet another example of the futility and confusion of the reformists’ attempts to deal with capitalism’s problems. Juvenile crime is an ugly sore on society and one which grows increasingly septic. The reformers respond erratically, at one time with repression and at another with some comparative leniency. Fashions come and go; so-called family courts, in which all the family were to sit round a table with the police and the magistrates to thrash out some answers to the young offender’s problems, were once suggested as the final solution (in England and Wales, they never even started). Now the wheel has turned at least part of the circle and punishment becomes popular again. Meanwhile, regardless of what the floggers or the do-gooders may try, the crime figures continue to climb; their cause is beyond the scope of any measures of reform.


It is perhaps useful here to give a consumer’s angle on the issue—an angle which will not impress any Tory conference:


“I wonder how they can forget places like Reading and Portsmouth Borstal recall centres. There will be nothing but brutality there, and it will screw’ the majority of kids right up. I went through places like that in the early ’50s and it did me no good. I still have bitter memories of the beatings I received at the remand centre before I reached my teens and it just made me determined, that I would get in first. I am still doing it now, but nobody has ever benefitted from it.”

This man is well qualified to testify to the effects of official, institutionalised violence; his criminal record goes back to his childhood and he is now serving a long sentence for a grave assault. His responses, as he says, have benefitted nobody and he has little more to show for his experiences than a glimmering of social insight:

“The Tories are very strong on Law and Order but it only applies to the working class . . . People must eventually get fed up with the legalised extortion being practised by successive governments. The Mafia don’t extort on the scale that governments do.”


Because the direct victims of crime are often workers—a security guard coshed, a worker’s home broken into—it can easily be overlooked that crime is essentially a threat to the morals and privileges of capitalism. This is a society in which a minority class own the means of living, denying the rest of society access to those means except on their terms the terms of being employed for a wage. This act of historical theft is legalised, solemnised and sanctified by both state and church. The acquisition of wealth by means outside this legality is a crime but workers who are denied, repressed, degraded, who live out lives of frustrating poverty, can hardly avoid breaking capitalism’s law’s. Thus crime is an inescapable concomitant of capitalism and will remain with us for as long as the working class allow the private property system to endure.


Pressure to conform
In this, as in all things, workers should keep a cool head. Capitalism responds to crime with repression, whether it be that of the bullying screw or of the wheedling social worker; both have the function of lacing deviant workers into a strait jacket of conformity. The pressure to conform, to accept our lot as exploited, socially inferior wage slaves supporting the parasite class of capitalists is what lies behind the Tories’ hysteria, behind the scapegoating of the young offender and the frothings of judges, police chiefs and magistrates. But the working class don’t need to accept this; the remedy for change is in their hands.


It may not be the best time to point it out to him, but when the prison gate judders shut behind some unfortunate worker he should listen carefully; in the rattle of the keys he will hear the echo of the vote he cast at the last election.