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What is a Borstal?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 December 2016
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A “borstal” is the term used to describe a system of juvenile detention centers that existed in the United Kingdom for most of the 20th century. Meant as reformatory institutions focused on re-educating delinquent youths, borstals were a popular form of criminal youth management. The borstal system was replaced by the Criminal Justice Act of 1982.

The original concept of the borstal system was to separate young boys from adults criminals, in the hopes of both protecting them from brutal prison treatment and reforming them into law-abiding citizens. The first detention center was built in 1902 outside the village of Borstal in the English county of Kent, leading to the use of the name “borstal” as a common term for the reformatories. Other institutions were soon opened throughout the British territories, including in Scotland, North Ireland, and Wales.

According to some, the borstal system turned out nearly as many hardened criminals as it did reformed citizens. Despite being termed "centers for re-education," no formalized educational courses were offered; some programs included vocational or work training, but many of the boys came and left never even having learned how to read.

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One account of a former inmate describes a life surrounded by routine and punctuated by brutality. Boys spent most of the day working different jobs, such as bricklaying, but were given some time off to engage in particularly bloodthirsty sports. In the account, the inmate describes how his attempts to learn to read resulted in reprimands and cruelty from other prisoners.

Corporal punishment in most borstal institutions was reserved for serious breaches of rules, such as attacking a prison official. Though accounts of official punishment are rare, it is a generally held belief that informal beatings and brutality were quite common both from prison officials and between inmates. As with many prison systems, strict hierarchies developed among prisoners and new or lower-ranking inmates crossed these lines at their peril.

Though borstal systems were officially replaced in 1982, many of the principles that guided their operations still influence the management of juvenile offenders throughout the United Kingdom. Critics of the system complain that inmates are still given little to no useful training and may have to resort to criminal lives upon release, having knowledge of little else. The idea of the borstal still weighs heavily in the culture of the British Isles, where many books, songs, plays, and films have been set in these now-vanished institutions.

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