Bring Back Borstal :: Daring to Give a Damn About Delinquents


Over the past couple of nights, I watched ITV’s entertaining and very moving ‘social experiment’ Bring Back Borstal online. This morning I read a couple of reviews in the Telegraph and the Guardian with critics sneering at the artifice and lack of originality of the format. This made me feel sad, because to my mind, their objections were irrelevant and entirely missed the point.

The programme, in a nutshell, sees fourteen young offenders volunteering to become ‘borstal boys’, spending four weeks in a 1930s-style institution to see if it helps them change their ways. These boys are aged between 18 and 23 and most of them have a criminal past, having spent time in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and/or in some cases, adult prison. Their crimes range from shoplifting and drug use to actual bodily harm and smashing in someone’s eye with a golf putter.

Critics sneered because the boys, having volunteered, were then allowed to leave at any time and could often be seen smirking and treating the whole thing like a joke. This is because borstal was abolished in 1982 and, for better or for worse, you can’t legally incarcerate anyone in the name of televisual entertainment. However, that didn’t stop the programme offering some extremely valuable insights into our current punitive system and ways in which it might be changed for the better.

In four hour-long episodes covering the four weeks of the experiment, these young men, most of whom had been in and out of care homes since they were very young, were forced out of bed at 6am every day and made to do useful stuff. The question was, would this regime of physical exercise, education, hard work and discipline be better for the boys and for society at large than the current system of YOIs and prisons, where inmates are allowed, if they so desire, to do bugger all.

Overseeing this experiment and taking on the role as governor of the borstal was Professor David Wilson, a former prison governor and Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University.


Wilson’s areas of expertise include sex offenders, serial killers and young offenders. He knows his onions. Of the borstal system to which the fourteen volunteers would be subjected, he says:

This is a tough regime. It’s relentless. We are not locking up these young men and allowing them to sit in their cells watching television or playing Playstation. We’re saying that being active on the sports field, or in the classroom, or at work, will ultimately help them have a better stake in the community when they return.

The thing that really gets me about all this is that it’s all so bleeding obvious.

We all know prison doesn’t work.

We all know that without guidance, the only thing most young offenders will learn in jail is how to be old offenders.

We all know that telling people they’re bad will make them act badly, whereas telling people they have the potential to be great will have the opposite effect.

We all know that when we consistently treat people with kindness and respect, eventually they reciprocate.

We all know that there’s no such thing as evil and that every human being has the potential to be good and decent and caring and loving. Don’t we?

Well, we should, because it’s the only way forward.

Bring Back Borstal acted as a reminder that we have a responsibility of care towards every member of our society, especially towards those of us who, for whatever reason, behave badly. And for those people, caring means education, rehabilitation, and absolutely crucially, helping to raise their own opinion of themselves.


Borstal in its heyday was always educational rather than punitive, and it worked. Seven out of ten young people who went through the borstal system never reoffended.

The alternative does not work. Currently, four out of five young offenders reoffend within three years. As Professor Wilson put it in the final episode of Bring Back Borstal:

There was a phrase in young offender institutes and in prison generally, that happiness is door-shaped. In other words, it’s better to put prisoners into their cell, locked up, sleeping on their beds or watching the telly. But frankly, in the long run, it doesn’t do anything to change those young men, and it doesn’t do anything to reduce the levels of crime.

I’m not going to pretend that these boys are some kinds of angels, because they are not. But you know, they weren’t monsters from outer space. They didn’t have dreams and ambitions that you and I don’t have. They had exactly the same dreams and ambitions. What we’ve done here in this borstal is unlock these young men, let them out to do work, to do education, to give them books to read, to keep them active, to tell them they should learn a trade skill.

Of the fourteen original volunteers, only five saw the month out. The rest either couldn’t hack it or were asked to leave because of violence.

However, it’s worth adding to those ostensibly poor statistics some other numbers. This quote is from an excellent interview with Jenny Molloy, an author and care leaver herself, who took the role of the matron in Bring Back Borstal

Change in these lads’ lives came slowly, but the experiment wanted to offer a positive start. Even for the lads who did not complete their stay, the majority report good things. The current facts from the cohort of fourteen are:

  • There has been no reoffending since the boys left the borstal
  • 2 lads are now in college
  • 5 lads have new employment
  • 1 lad is in voluntary employment
  • 1 lad was supported to find stable housing
  • 1 lad is setting up his own charity

In short, it works. Instilling hope in people and giving them a sense of self-worth makes for happier, better adjusted members of society. Who knew?


That interview with Jenny Molloy ends with the question, Should we bring back borstal? Molloy’s answer is as follows:

My views towards youth justice have always been that the sentence is the punishment and any period of incarceration must be a time of opportunity. It sickens me to continue to meet young people who are not able to read, write or perform even the most basic of work tasks.

It equally appals me that young offenders are written off so quickly, with any trauma from their past being seen as ‘excuses’ by adults rather than reasons, which can help understand their offending behaviour and be worked through in time.

The question is, of course, should we bring back borstal? I am not qualified to answer that, but I am qualified to state this: As long as we deny young people vital interventions in their chaotic family lives, and continued aspirations for their futures, we will continue to see YOI’s and adult prisons full of people devoid of hope for the future.

Should we bring back borstal?

I guess I’m not qualified to answer it either, but yes, we absolutely definitely should. Of course we should. We won’t call it borstal this time, and we should make sure the brutality that we saw in Scum doesn’t creep back in, but yes, implementing a penal system based on genuine rehabilitation is something that we should definitely do. Obviously.

In the meantime, if you missed it, Bring Back Borstal is on ITV Player. Watch it.


About the Author

I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you'll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven't already.

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