Denise Robertson: Never mind a TV series about Borstal - let's see its ideas implemented for real

Journal columnist and TV agony aunt Denise Robertson on the Northumberland-set TV series about Borstal and the lessons it has for us

©JustinSleePhotography2014 Bring Back Borstal
Bring Back Borstal

Nearly three quarters of young offenders released from prison re-offend within 12 months. Some experts believe it is because the present system doesn’t equip them for the outside world.

The discredited Borstal system, abolished by the Criminal Justice Act 1982, was much-feared but 70% of the boys never reoffended.

Now, in a unique television experiment, 14 young troublemakers, half of whom have criminal convictions, two of whom were violent criminals, volunteered to become Borstal boys, spending four weeks in a castle in Northumberland to see if it could break their cycle of bad behaviour.

The ITV series was the idea of criminologist Professor David Wilson, who was governor at several prisons including Wormwood Scrubs.

I met him last week and, far from being a forbidding figure, he exudes zeal to rehabilitate.

“I am passionate about demonstrating how we can change Young Offenders Institutions,” he said “Borstal’s reputation got damaged in the 1970s, when the staff were too brutal. But it worked. The current system isn’t fit for purpose. We shouldn’t be locking young offenders in a cell for 20 hours a day with a Playstation.

“We need to engage with these guys so they don’t commit further crimes. Treat them as individuals. Make them learn a trade and give them a stake in the community. It might cost more money up front, but it will save us millions down the line when they do NOT reoffend.”

The series’ intense regime didn’t work for all of them and there were a number of drop-outs but Professor Wilson got everyone who finished a job or a place in higher education. I met one of them. In school he suffered racist bullying and started to misbehave. Despite being disruptive, he got nine GCSEs and a BTEC, but soon afterwards got into trouble with the police. The Borstal experiment worked for him.

“At first the early starts and physical work was a real shock to the system. The first night we had cold potatoes, dry bread and water! It was tough, but I soon learnt if I behaved myself, I could get along without getting into trouble.

“I’m now studying Social Sciences and I’m going to university in September. I want to work with disadvantaged kids. I haven’t been to prison but a lot of my mates say they’d actually like to go back because it was an easy ride.”

Professor Wilson wants to do another series, this time with girls. I’d sooner see him putting his ideas into real action for young offenders up and down the land.



A woman carries a baby next to her heart for nine months. She and her partner see it clearly in their mind’s eye. When it emerges they are filled with exhilaration and wonder.

Then their precious baby dies and someone is gently suggesting donation of its organs.

I can hardly comprehend the courage and humanity of the couple who allowed their six-day-old baby girl’s kidneys and liver to be given to two separate recipients in incredibly difficult and intricate surgery. But what better way of making sure that their child’s brief life counted and will go on counting?



Once again a judge has condemned a local authority for abusing its powers and described its behaviour as “reprehensible”.

“It is hard to imagine a more depressing and inexcusable state of affairs” he said.

A 91-year-old man, a war veteran and former civil servant, was forced from his home wearing only his dressing gown and leaving behind his beloved cat. He was then locked in a dementia unit for 17 months when he was perfectly capable of continuing to live at home and a court heard that the decision to force him into care was made without authority. They also applied to control his not inconsiderable finances.

In his scathing ruling, Judge Paul Mort said: “Throughout the whole of the period of P’s placement, he expressed a consistent wish to return home.

“Despite expert advice that he was able to choose for himself, the council did nothing to enable him to do so. The result is that P was detained against his wishes for 17 months.

“A defenceless 90-year-old gentleman in his final years was removed from his home of 50 years and detained in a locked dementia unit. Had it not been for the alarm raised by his friend, he may have been condemned to remain there for the remainder of his days.”

He is now back home, “happy and contented” but it’s hard to believe the experience hasn’t done damage. The council agreed to pay the man’s £50,000 legal bill plus £60,000 in damages and will fund an intensive care regime.

I hope the council taxpayers of that area will protest that over £100,000 of their money has gone down the drain.

I hope we all take note that, when we reach 90, we too may be removed from our home without authority and, if we don’t have good and persistent friends, never see that home again.


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