11 JANUARY 1963, Page 6

Borstal Trauma

By DENNIS MARSDEN T1REE years ago, when I lived in a social work settlement in the East End, I took the opportunity of visiting a Borstal. I was kindly received by the governor and officers and given every help, pleasant accommodation and the offer of good food in the officers' mess. I had planned to stay a week : in the event I left, stunned, after only three days.

The institution was in the country, a large greyish-brown building which had been a prison.

Without any ceremony I was introduced just before tea-time into the wing of the building re- served for sexual offenders (homosexuals and those convicted of indecent exposure), epileptics and (as it turned out) the mentally subnormal. The wing looked what it was, part of a prison.

It was built of stone in the form of landings round a central well, with rows of separate 'peters' or cells along each. Across the well stretched wire-netting--to prevent suicides, I was told by the boys, but more likely to protect those below from objects thrown from the landings.

Each night the boys were locked in, individually, because as known sexual offenders they couldn't be trusted to sleep in dormitories like boys in the other wings of the institution.

I was placed in the care of three very large boys who were on good terms with the authori- ties. I sat with them at a little table for four at mealtimes, trying to eat the same food as they did, and it was this which really established me as not one of 'them,' the prison officers; for no one would cat Borstal food unless he really wanted to 'make friends' with the boys. These were mostly sexual offenders. The prison officers weren't sure how far I was to he accepted, but I was allowed to glance over the case-sheet of a boy who had indecently ex- posed himself to a small girl, an instance typical of over half the boys, I was told. Yet if you asked a boy what he thought most of them were in for, he would go blank and answer, 'Oh, nicking things mostly.' For the whole insti- tution there was one doctor with no psychiatric training (in this wing there were eighty or so boys). Many boys were eager to talk and all evening I sat at the table where I had had tea and an informal 'queue' shuffled self-consciously past as boys waited for a chance to drop into con- versation. There was no bravado here; perhaps a little of the confidence trickster's pride in a coup. But mainly there was puzzlement: boys knew why they were in—for such and such an act—but they didn't know 'why' they had done it and they weren't at all sure that once out they wouldn't do it again or something similar. One boy was mentally defective and couldn't carry on a coherent conversation. At the end of the block a group of homosexuals giggled and simpered at one another, ostracised by many of the boys, yet by their display attracting an appalled attention.

These boys, I was told by a young house- master, were inadequate personalities. They couldn't face life, and at Borstal for the first time probably they were given regular food and a regular routine; they were taught to take up 'communal responsibilities.' They were given Borstal 'training.'

What did this training consist of? In public- school fashion, the institution was divided into houses. These houses could compete against one another—for example, in sports—and outstand- ing effort was rewarded. There was no fixed period of sentence—only a minimum and a maximum—but boys, by 'working' for their houses and behaving amiably, could win grades. With these grades came increasing privileges, and when a boy passed all the grades he could leave Borstal. But what if one couhin'i run or jump, or *—On your trip in the States. Sergei, honestly, now—were all those girls just trying to spy on you?' if one wasn't trained by background and upbring- ing to regard this kind of thing as good for one's 'character,' or to regard winning as in some way deeply important? What, indeed, if one hadn't a `character' in this sense at all? Such boys didn't at all understand the grading process to which they were subjected, and as the time for grading approached tension built up. Usually at each grading several boys 'went over the wall at the disappointment, even though they would have been released in a month or two anyway. - Those with whom the boys had a working relationship were definitely the `NCOS' of the establishment, men not likely to offer deep in- sights into their behaviour problems. At a further remove still were the warders such as W, who was to be watched carefully because he was used to 'prisoners' after his Dartmoor service. To see him prowling stiff-necked, a bunch of keys dangling and eyes-narrowed, down the Centre of the block would have added a touch of melodrama to the scene, had the boys not been so obviously afraid of him : 'Watch out! He's got eyes in the back of his head.' _ Like the 'manly' life in the army, you had some 'good times' and 'a good laugh' occasion- ally. One boy, Syrne, was a pathetically be- wildered, shy person, scarcely speaking to anyone; he would sit at mealtimes with the un- naturally' inhibited stiffness of a mental patient.

One of the boys' chief delights was to take Syme's thick, ridiculous spectacles off him, so that he •could hardly see, and tie their flexible frames into knots. The object of the game was soon achieved when Syme, beside himself with fear in case they should break, would, swear abominably and finally burst into tears, totally humiliated. During the meal the largest boy at our table hissed commands to Syme to fetch this or to give him that, and at the end of the meal Syme cleared away out things—'0h aye, Syme's been clearing up for some time now,' they told me with a meaning smile.

In fact, there was among the boys a 'bullying order' as firmly established, by brutal scuffles in dark corners or in the lavatory, as a pecking order among hens. Syme came at the bottom of this order and there was no one he could turn to for protection, for the institution was de- signed to make a man of him by this 'disciplined,' communal living.

Officials at that Borstal were cagey about recidivism, and the most optimistic estimate, from the governor, was 50 per cent., although some of the officers thought it was nearer 75 per cent. But what stays with me has little to do with the 'efficiency' of the system, measured in percentages. What kind of a 'trained' individual does Borstal produce when at the end of their stay in Borstal the strongest boys have risen to the top of this bullying hierarchy and gained their grades--and the confidence of the authori- ties—while the Symes are at the bottom of the pile, inarticulate, withdrawn and despised by those same authorities whose task it should be to heal their scarred personalities? What are we doing subjecting boys who need the security of a home and the confidence of an adult to this brutalising travesty of a `community'? Every so often the image of Syme with his tears and twisted glasses will keep returning; an image I would willingly share with the public conscience.