No change

It was hardly noticed at the time, but last May the British penal system, which does not have a reputation for moving swiftly with the times, underwent an historic change. As a result, the prospects are that a lot more youngsters will be going to prison than before, which probably gave some excited relief to those who nurture a punitive lust towards young criminality. Like much superficial and irrelevant adjustments, this was called a revolution. In fact it was nothing more than the abolition of the Borstal system and its replacement by something called Youth Custody.

The first Borstal was set up in 1902, in the village of that name in Kent, as an experimental training camp for young offenders. This was greeted as a great humanitarian advance, for the young had traditionally been harshly treated when they broke the law. In the 18th century 90 per cent of offenders who were hanged were under the age of 21; in 1838 Parkhurst was converted from a military hospital to a young offenders’ prison, where the shackles and the whip were in regular use. The experiment at Borstal was regarded as a success and the Prevention of Crime Act 1908 (which did not, of course, prevent crime nor even offer any perceptive notion of what it was) gave birth to an entire system of the places.

The draftsmen of the 1908 Act set out the new institutions’ objects in ringing terms, dear to the hearts of the legislators of the day:

  . . . places in which young offenders may be given such industrial training and other instruction and be subjected to such disciplinary and moral influences as will conduce to their reformation and the prevention of crime. (Quoted in Justice of the Peace, 19 November 1983).

Nearly sixty years after the Act, the Home Office were sure that these objects were being achieved for the Borstals, they said, were providing “. . . all-round development of character and capacities — moral, mental, physical and vocational . . .” (The Sentence of the Court, 1969: HMSO).

Well, that was not quite how many of the Borstal boys remembered them. One will never forget the immediate assault he was subjected to on his arrival, before he had had time to break any of the rules, to show him what would happen if he did. Another has bitter memories of his first, character-forming, day when he saw a friend beaten because he couldn’t wash the floor to an officer’s satisfaction. He was, in fact, in the last throes of leukaemia: when he died, a couple of days later, the governor had the boys assembled to suggest that they might like to contribute to a wreath.

The intention was to model the Borstals on public schools, which were supposed to breed into youths the insular prejudices which had helped subdue so much of the world into the British Empire. They were divided into houses, supervised by people who anywhere else would have been known as prison officers but who in Borstals were called housemasters. There was an emphasis, at least in theory, on house spirit, physical exercise and career training. A lot of money was spent on some of them; one had a library, a sports field and a shed full of racing boats such as might have been the envy of a public school. Others were huge purpose-built complexes with classrooms, workshops and a farm. It was of course useful to display such Borstals to visiting parties of judges and magistrates who were looking for reassurance that they were doing the boys a favour by sending them there. Other Borstals were rather less favoured; they might be converted military camps, some from the Napoleonic Wars; one of these could expect, on a typical day, to have over half its inmates — boys aged between 15 and 21 — to be homeless when they were released to face the rigours of life at what was called liberty. The prospects of such boys were poor; a Home Office Research Bulletin in 1978 found a 60 per cent reconviction rate among homeless ex-prisoners. (Making Good, Martin Wright. Burnet Books, 1982). The main problem facing these boys would have been eradicated if they could somehow have moved upwards into the other class in society, where a housing problem is not known, but no Act of Parliament was ever drafted with that in mind.

There was in fact one way in which the Borstal did provide the best schooling in the country. They were the Oxbridge of criminal education, where boys who had previously bungled their offences could learn how best to steal a car or break into a house. One graduate, now middle-aged, put it something like this:

  When I left Borstal I was 18 and I had to make a choice. I’d learned how to make crime pay; should I go straight or go back at it, only properly this time? When I looked at the profits I could see there was really no choice so I went back at it. Got my own little business together then I packed it in. Till I got tempted with this little lot.

But it was not their futility, nor any violence or corruption about them, which brought about the end of the Borstals; it was simply that, in the eyes of the legislators and of the people who vote for them, they were not doing their job. For the past twenty years or so, a flood of statistics has borne into public awareness the impression that crime is predominantly the act of poor young men from an urban environment. Throughout the period 1972-82 the highest rate of known crime per 100,000 of the population has been in the male age group 14-17 and the next highest in the male age group 17-21. In 1982. the most recent year for which figures are available, the rates were 76 and 73 respectively while for all age groups it was about 22. Even allowing for statistical quirks — for example many of the offences committed by teenagers are by their nature more likely to come to the notice of the police than are some of the more premeditated and sophisticated crimes by adults — the figures give a clear enough picture and it is one of widespread disaffection among the youth of Britain.

Certainly, that was the message reaching the courts, with their daily stream into the dock of youngsters who had taken cars, broken into houses, or picked a pocket. But when the courts came to exact their revenge. they often found their powers restricted by the Criminal Justice Act of 1961. This Act forbade the courts to send anyone to prison, if by their age they were qualified for a sentence of Borstal, for any period between six months and three years, with the intention that a sentence of any intermediate length must entail Borstal training. This was Parliament’s response to the developing problem of juvenile crime, which it hoped to deal with by something officially defined as training rather than with something condemned as punishment. (Those were high days for the theories of social work as a palliative to capitalism’s ailments; the inevitable failure of social work has opened the way for a return to a harder policy of restraint and punishment.)

More than one judge, impatient to imprison some miserable, quaking youth, fretted at the restrictions of the 1961 Act; for one thing, Borstal training meant that the Home Office decided when the offender was released, instead of the judge fixing it by the length of sentence. Flower-hatted Tory ladies and puce-faced gentlemen gave vent to their outrage at the apparent indulgence of teenage louts and ne’er-do-wells. Stimulated by a typical media panic, there was a White Paper and a “debate” and then another Act of Parliament. The original noble aims of the Borstal were forgotten and they were quietly put to death; the signs at the gates were replaced with others which proclaimed that what had been a Borstal is now a Youth Custody Centre; new forms were printed; the housemasters went back into uniform and to being called prison officers. In one way or another, judges and magistrates can send youngsters to some sort of prison for whatever time, short or long, they decide — and the signs are that they are happily taking their chance. According to the Guardian of 14 September 1983, in the first two months of the Act’s operation the number of inmates aged 15-20 in the Youth Custody Centres increased by about 1,000; a crisis of overcrowding is now looming, to rival that in the adult prisons.

The treatment (for that is what it is called) of offenders is officially judged in terms of its effect on re-offending. No “treatment” method has such a “success” rate that it outdistances the rest and presents a clear economic choice for a government to invest in. No method offers any comfort to the law-makers and this is especially the case with juveniles who are given custodial sentences, for up to 80 per cent of them re-offend within two years of their release (Martin Wright). This says a great deal, not so much about the offenders but about the penal system and the society in which it all happens and which the penal system is supposed to defend.

The legislators and the sentencers — and reformers — turn their attention to the character of the offender, which at least allows them to ignore the character of this society. Crime happens mainly in urban areas because they are the concentrations of population which capitalism set down so that workers could live near the places where they were exploited. The history of this, of the expulsions from the land and the pitiful trek for survival to the towns, is one of extreme cruelty. Urban pressures are different now but in their way they are as fierce and destructive as ever. The towns and cities are places where economic and social alienation is made explicit, where people can lie dead in their homes without anyone knowing, where the homeless skulk through the parks and the streets, dirty and ignored.

Capitalism’s social engineers encourage us to escape this fate through an attachment to the family and they have an ideal of this — an inturned. private, passionless unit where appetites and emotions are kept in check to promote our docility in exploitation. Capitalism’s family breeds neurosis as it socialises its children into a passive acceptance of their place as wage slaves. But at the same time this family has little resilience; it breaks under only a slight pressure and when that happens its members are left bewildered and damaged, sometimes to the point of seeing themselves as freakish. Children of one-parent families, for example, can often go through agonies of embarrassment in their relationship with other children who have both a mother and a father at home. An impressive number of such children take the role of social deviants and end up in the dock and with the cell door clanging into place at their backs.

For this is not a social system based on majority human interests. It cannot encourage. nor even manage, any challenge to its basic character; it must respond with discipline and repression. It cannot condone human freedom because to do so would undermine its structure of privilege feeding off poverty.

Almost unnoticed — and so far unmourned — the Borstals have gone now, and there are other places which operate on the same blind and brutal deceptions. Meanwhile capitalism goes on, with its poverty, its repression and its human alienation. “Is there not,” observed Marx, “a necessity for deeply reflecting upon an alteration of the system that breeds these crimes, instead of glorifying the hangman who executes a lot of criminals to make room for the supply of new ones?”