BBC Radio 4

    The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: Borstal Boys

    The dining hall at the Swinfen Hall borstal near Lichfield, Staffordshire, 1963.

    "Why do you think you're ready to go?" I asked. Even as I spoke the words I felt as though I should apologise for the absurdity of the question. Here I was in my local borstal, asking one of the inmates to provide me with a reason why he should be released before the full term of his sentence.

    The sad ill-nourished boy who sat across the desk from me knew as well as I did that this was an elaborate game.

    Back in the seventies, borstals were the favoured form of detention for young delinquents and their declared emphasis upon "training" rather than punishment meant that every sentence was indeterminate. Those boys - or "lads" as they were officially described - who could display evidence that their training had been successful could expect to be released after a mere six months.

    "Oh yes, I've learned my lesson", said the boy. He might look sad, I thought, but he's obviously been quite alert enough to learn from his mates about how to answer questions from a member of the borstal's Board of Governors.

    "You genuinely regret the violent behaviour which led to your custodial sentence?" I said glancing down at his file.

    "Oh yes", he said, "I now realise that I deserved my punishment."

    "And you have a place to live and a job to go to?"

    "Oh yes. My auntie will take me in and I can get my old job on the building site again. And that'll keep me out of trouble in the future."

    Several days later, I joined the other borstal governors for a board meeting and announced when it was my turn to speak that in my opinion the sad under-nourished boy was now "ready to go". He had, I said, obviously benefitted from his training. He was duly released.

    It was probably my sense of absurdity of the whole process - the assumption that Borstal really did prevent re-offending and that asking inmates about their sense of contrition was an adequate way of measuring such alleged efficacy - which led, at a later meeting, to my explosion of anger.

    The board, in its usual self-congratulatory manner, had been talking about ways in which the "training" of the "lads" might be even further improved. "Of course the trouble with many of these lads", said one senior member of the Board, "is that they lack any proper sense of self-awareness. They don't think for themselves. They go along with the crowd". There was a mumble of agreement.

    I raised my hand and the elderly chairman nodded in my direction. "Yes, Professor Taylor."

    "Well", I said "It's not too surprising really that the boys, or the lads, lack any individuality. After all, we are constantly regimenting them. We march them around in groups and make them keep in step. We insist they shave every day and keep their hair neat and tidy. And most of all we make them wear a uniform. How much individuality can they possibly show when they have to dress every day in long grey shorts and grey shirts? Instead of allowing them to develop some idea of their distinctiveness which might lead them away from future delinquencies, we persist in putting them all into a uniform which announces their criminal homogeneity."

    I was a relatively new member of the board and this was quite my lengthiest and certainly my most passionate contribution to its proceedings. I was, however, very quickly put in my place. The aged chairman barely looked up from the fat folder of delinquent case histories which sat on the table before him.

    "Professor Taylor", he said. "Your attack on uniforms is quite unjustified. What you fail to remember is that some of the finest feats ever performed on behalf of this country were carried out by men in uniform."

    I remembered that occasion and the speciousness of the chairman's argument when I read a new research article about a management experiment in a UK hospital which required all professions (with the exception of doctors) to wear the same "corporate uniform". Did this provide the wearers with a welcome sense of corporate identity or did it lead to the obliteration of boundaries which were essential to their self-identity?

    You can learn the answer in this week's programme repeated after the midnight news on Sunday or to download now from our podcast.

    Also in the programme, an interview with the author of a book which claims that our cities are now rapidly becoming battle spaces.

    Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed


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