Anarchy 101/Notes on Detention Centres
At times I am in sympathy with this way of approaching some of our institutions. But as a libertarian who is also in the unfortunate position of earning a living by being a sociologist who studies and teaches around the subjects of crime, delinquency and other forms of deviance, I am also conscious of having to fight this form of thinking. There is an anti-intellectualism rampant both among one’s students (where it takes the form of demanding easy ways to answer exam questions) and, alas, among one’s political comrades (where it takes the form of demanding easy slogans or programmes for action). Anarchists, whose intellectual roots go deeper back than any other group fighting the horrors of today’s society should be the first to see that a committed and passionate position is not incompatible with an orderly argument. In conventional criminology of course—
How They Started: The Short, Sharp, Shock
The first centre was set up four years later, in 1952, and others followed at fairly regular intervals, achieving high rankings on the sentencing chart for Teddy Boys, a fashion maintained more recently for the Mods and Rockers. By the end of 1966 there were four Junior (14-16) and 14 Senior (17-20) Centres for boys and one Centre for girls. The sentence is for a minimum period of three months and a maximum of six months. The move from short (three-six months) prison sentences for young offenders following the implementation in 1963 of certain sections in the Criminal Justice Act, 1961, resulted in large shifts from prison to Detention Centre. In 1955, 586 boys were sent to Detention Centres, in 1961 the number was 2,311 and in 1966, 7,154.
From the beginning it was made quite clear that the function of the Detention Centres was purely deterrent. The idea was to provide, in the oft-quoted phrase, a “short, sharp, shock”. John Conrad, in what is for the most part an enlightened and sensitive analysis of penal policy and practise, blandly comments that to him, Detention Centres are “the most interesting innovation in the English correctional system”. He sadly notes that the “short, sharp shock” phrase has haunted Detention Centre staffs (implying perhaps that the staff would prefer some other conception of their function) and goes on to quote an experienced Detention Centre Warden who says that the phrase “. . . disturbingly suggests that somewhere in a dim background there is carried on a system of semi-legalized physical torment. Nothing, it need scarcely be said, is further from the truth.” No one, it need scarcely be added, can indict a system more thoroughly than its adherents.
But Conrad reminds us as well of the origins of the phrase:
To set in solemn silence in a dull dark dock,
In a pestilential prison with a life long lock
Awaiting the sensation of a short sharp shock
From a chippy, chippy chopper on a big black block.
In the seventeen years since which Detention Centres have been run something like 45,000 boys have been, to use the fashionable euphemism, “admitted” through their gates and awaited the sensations arranged for them by the dutiful staff. To these boys, the sensations have not been seen as particularly short—
In terms of the official conceptions of what the Detention Centres were all about, there has always been a remarkable consistency. One gets a feeling of timelessness reading through the original outlines in 1948, the Detention Centre Rules in 1952, the annual reports of the Prison Commissioners (later the Prison Department) since 1952, various Home Office circulars and other publications such as the Justice of the Peace and Local Government Review. In fact, as early as 1942, the well-known juvenile court magistrate John Watson justified the use of “punitive detention” for juvenile offenders in terms almost identical to those used in regard to Detention Centres nearly thirty years later:
. . . the provision meets the case where no long period of training is called for and all that is necessary is a short, sharp punishment to bring the offender to his senses and act as a deterrent. There is a very definite demand for some form of treatment of this kind which would be of short duration but thoroughly unpleasant and available as a penalty for minor offences, including minor breaches of probation. What is needed is a small local establishment in which the discipline is of the sternest, the food of the plainest, where everything is done “at the double” and where there is a maximum of hard work and the minimum of amusement; the kind of establishment a young offender would not want to visit twice and of which he would paint a vivid picture on his return home.
The least that can be said for these principles is that they were clear and unambiguous. There was also—
The regime which derived from these principles was to be based on hard work, physical exercise and training, little recreation, para-military discipline and a lot of time marching around, lining up and changing clothes. These features were based on what is again a clear but on closer examination wholly unfounded set of justifications, derived from a combination of army, public school and Hitler Youth ideologies. At various times, the following elements were emphasized: rigid discipline combined with wholesome influences; the inculcation of personal standards of cleanliness, obedience and good manners; the direction of energy into constructive sources; the long-term deterrent effect of unpleasant experiences; self-pride in physical powers; the beneficial effects of exercise for the mind and body; the sheer consumption of time in useless activity. These and similar elements of thinking have been accepted with little questioning, their relevance to the basic causes and outcomes of delinquency never demonstrated. The few attempts which have been made by the spokesmen of the system at any creative thought about these links have been too pathetic to quote at any length. According to an editorial in the Justice of Peace (1/4/61) for example, Detention Centres are successful “. . . in restoring some semblance of discipline and personal pride to the young men whose neglect of these qualities was frequently at the root of their delinquent behaviour”. Such thinking defies comment.
“. . . a long period of residential training is not yet necessary or justified for their offence but who also cannot be taught respect for the law by such non-custodial measures as fines or probation.”
It’s All Like Butlins Now
Detention Centre Wardens and other apologists for the system want things both ways. On the one hand they still propound the original philosophy and on the other, they claim that those who condemn the system for being harsh and unconstructive are wrong—
In practise, there has been very little change at all; this is not the way of such institutions. As Conrad says about the penal system as a whole: “Inertia, the law and the inherent bureaucratic resistance to change, preserve not only the physical structure but also the ideas, the organization and the expectations of the system”. Certainly there have been some modifications to the original regime and one cannot deny that social workers have appeared on the staff of Detention Centres. There has also been some research. But the modifications have not involved any basic change in the conception of the Centres’ purposes nor have they been due to any feedback from research about the effectiveness of the regime. The changes have been part of a general window dressing in which it is felt that one has to apologise for anything nasty and introduce, for the public’s consumption, phrases such as “positive”, “beneficial effect”, “constructive”, “for their own good” and even “rehabilitative”.
The recent rather jaundiced looks at psychiatry by people such as Szasz, Laing and Cooper have warned us about the potential risks of despotism appearing under such new disguises. Anarchists have quite rightly taken an interest in this argument (see anarchy 70 on Libertarian Psychiatry), although the anti-psychiatry line has been (characteristically) overstated in its recent adoption by the trendy New Left. From a somewhat different political position, C. S. Lewis’s warning is the same:
Of all tyrannies, tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with approval of their conscience.
Of course we want neither robber barons nor omnipotent moral busybodies—
Now what lies behind this rhetoric of change? We need not be driven to conspiracy theories about the Home Office and well meaning critics deliberately distorting the truth. We know from other areas of life that public statements are made about policies which are not really practised or which are only given lip service to. There has not really been a move away from a system based on deterrence and rigid discipline. The atmosphere in a Detention Centre is still para-military, there is still the 6.30 a.m. limbering up in the open-air, the compulsory P.T. periods, the parades and all the rest. What we have seen is the uneasy grafting onto the system of concepts which are alien to it and the appearance in official statements of a new apologetic tone: discipline is not enough, there must also be rehabilitation. The system is becoming unsure of itself. Let me give some examples of this (and also of cases where the original principles are being unapologetically re-affirmed), again drawing upon official sources.
In 1959 there appeared in an important White Paper (Penal Practise in a Changing Society) not only the announcement that more Centres were to be built without any change but an attempt to retrospectively alter the original concept of the Centres: “In the first detention centre . . . emphasis was placed on the elements of hard work, brisk tempo and strict discipline. From the outset, however, it was understood that these stricter elements should be used as part of a constructive reformative system in which the staff would make a real effort to find out what was wrong with a boy and put it right.” Two years later in 1961, a change not at first sight very consistent with these sentiments was announced: a switch for senior Detention Centre staff from civilian clothing to uniform. (The Quaker report, to do it credit, also found this change “difficult to understand . . . at a time when more liberal ideas were being introduced into the regime”.) In the same year a Centre was opened at New Hall and its function described in a journal for magistrates: “From the start the boy is taught that he must do as he is told and that he lives in a community where second best is not accepted.” Two years later, a note attached to a Home Office circular (192/1963) for justices proclaimed the news that Detention Centres were “. . . intended to provide a sharp sanction by means of a short but strict lesson” (where have we heard those phrases before?). But there was an explanation and apology to come:
“The insistence that every boy should give of his best in all activities is the real element of shock. Throughout training a boy is strained to the limit of (though never beyond) his ability and this unflagging element is far more taxing and salutary than mere conformity with a rigid discipline.”
Rather pathetically then, we are reassured that no boy is being strained beyond his ability and that no-one really believes in trying to change people by ensuring “mere” conformity: what nonsense in this enlightened age!In 1964 the handbook The Sentence of the Court was published, reaffirming that the Detention Centres’ regime was “brisk and firm”, etc., that its intention was “primarily deterrent” but that “without reducing the emphasis on high standards of discipline and behaviour, much positive training can be given”. A White Paper in 1965 stated that no change in the organization or methods of Detention Centres were proposed. In June 1967 a review of the system, however, was announced (partly prompted by publicity given to allegations of violent treatment of some inmates) and the report of the Home Office appointed Sub-Committee of the Advisory Council on the Penal System is expected shortly.
The Liberal Wolves
An example of this sophistry can be seen in an article by The Times Home Correspondent a few months ago. He concedes that critics have a point in singling out the military features of the regime but then says “. . . this hardly establishes a charge that the Centres are pursuing discipline for its own sake”. The reason he gives for this is that the staff would deny such a charge; they take personal interest in the boys and are involved in training. But how can training be achieved in two-three months? But, ah huh, says Mr. Fowler, “the aim is not” (thank God, one might add) “to completely reshape the boy”. The aim is more modest and is summed up by a Warden, whom he quotes as follows:
What the lad wants to see most is that authority is strict; that it is fair; and that the people administering the authority are human.
This is a marvellous quote for anarchists to savour. The poor old Warden, driven into a corner by the wolves of liberalism and permissiveness, has to save himself by re-asserting a conception of authority which they all share. Why is he so touchy? Who says that authority is not strict, unfair and inhuman? (We might quarrel about the fairness of authority but we do not doubt that it is strict and human.) Many of the “changes” have been bones thrown to keep the wolves of liberalism at bay. The Centres have also been opened up and shown to people like magistrates and even (reluctantly) to researchers. The visitors haven’t always been impressed but at least they’ve been convinced that the barons are quite nice guys and after all, they really mean well.
Even the sternest critics of Detention Centres equivocate when it comes to taking up a position in regard to the basic nature and objectives of the system. In reply to a critical letter which made this point about the British Psychological Society’s memorandum to the Advisory Council, Dr. Cockett, the convenor of the working party responsible for the memo writes:
Now, in terms of my unease about anti-intellectualism, I would agree with Dr. Cockett’s defence of his working party’s aims. Clearly, overstatements are not enough. But there comes a point—
Perhaps we may . . . add a more general comment, lest Dr. Norton retain the impression that we were attempting to defend or justify the existence of Detention Centres. Neither defence nor attack was, or could be, any part of our aim—which was to consider what we know and what we think professionally and to present it with a view to improvements and modifications where necessary. This appears to us (and, we imagine, to the British Psychological Society) to be a worthwhile aim which is not promoted by any kind of overstatement.
Who Gets Sent
Originally, Detention Centres were designed to fill the gap between long term custodial measures and measures such as fines and probation. It was thought—
“It is not yet possible to define in precise terms on the basis of theory or experience, the type of boy who is likely to benefit by treatment at a Detention Centre but it is clear that careful selection is the key to success. Detention Centre treatment is generally found to be unsuitable for certain classes of boy, notably those who have already undergone long-term institutional training, have appeared many times in the courts, show symptoms of maladjustment or more serious mental disturbance, are dull and backward, or are physically unfit for strenuous exercise. The most hopeful category is perhaps that of the well-developed, undisciplined young offender, who has hitherto come off best in his conflicts with authority though without having developed a bent from crime and who requires to be taught, through the unpleasant experience of enforced discipline in detention, that interference with other people and their property will be dealt with firmly and inescapably by society.”
Are these official criteria met? As early as 1957 there was mention in official reports of an increase in boys “who were unable to receive the full benefit of their period of detention due to physical disabilities”. In 1959 the unfortunate presence of boys with emotional disturbance was mentioned. The 1965 report was uneasy about the increased proportion of “the criminally sophisticated, the feckless, the inadequate and the emotionally disturbed”. Research by Charlotte Banks showed that “unsuitable” boys were being sent, despite improved medical and psychological screening. Out of her sample of 302 boys, 78 (i.e. 26%) were “not suitable” for detention: these included 10 who were innocent of the offence for which they were convicted (one wonders what sentence they were “suitable” for), 11 for whom the sentence was too severe, 19 who were suffering from physical handicaps which would make the regime too tough for them and 38 who were judged to have “severe psychological handicaps”. In case anyone should think that one is being too refined and soft-hearted about who is fit for the regime, an interesting case dating from August 1967 may be quoted. A boy was found guilty by the Gloucester City Magistrates and spent six weeks in a Detention Centre before his appeal was heard. The court was then told of the painful and difficult time the boy had in participating fully in the regime because of his club feet. The sentence was kindly replaced by a £30 fine.
What are the characteristics of the bulk of the boys sent? Elizabeth Field has recently summarized five studies of Detention Centres which go into this question. The first point is that the boys are by no means first offenders, who are being stopped short in the early days of the delinquent careers. In the five studies quoted by Field, the number of boys with no previous court appearance ranged from five to eighteen per cent.
In one sample of boys over 1965/66 the proportion with no previous convictions was six per cent, with one to two convictions, 37% and three or more convictions, 58%. Not only have most of those sent already had some experience of the legal system but a much larger proportion than was originally intended have been in one or other institution, such as a children’s home or approved school. As early as 1957, 44 out of 498 boys released had previous approved school experience. Although there have been changes of fashion over the years in sentencing policies, the type of offence for which boys are sent to detention centres has remained fairly constant: about fifty per cent for offences against property, twenty per cent for taking and driving away and ten per cent for violence.
There is no doubt some truth in the belief that failures in the Detention Centres (as measured by re-convictions) are based to some extent on mistakes in sentencing. For example, over eighty per cent of the 44 boys with previous institutional experience I quoted earlier, were re-convicted within a couple of years. The Detention Centre perhaps does succeed better with some boys than others (leaving aside the wholly barbarous way in which boys are exposed to a regime which even by the most superficial standards was not intended for them). But how do we know that the same boys for whom the Detention Centre “worked”, would not have responded equally well to some other measure? And who precisely is this group for whom the Detention Centre is such a perfect answer? Clearly all those who defend the system as it is or else want to tinker with it, have some image of the ideal offender who is going to shoot up the success rates.
But looking at the Home Office document quoted earlier, it is not too clear just who this group is. And when bodies such as the Howard League and the British Psychological Society get round to defining who shouldn’t be sent to Detention Centres, the list gets rather long. Here, for example, is the Howard League’s list of “negative criteria”:
- The severely disturbed, including the grossly neurotic, those with major character abnormalities, sexual difficulties and the psychotic.
- The educationally subnormal and very backward.
- The brain-damaged, the epileptic.
- The very passive and inadequate.
- The grossly deprived.
- Those with previous experience of institutions such as children’s homes or approved schools.
- The seriously drug dependent.
The Utilitarian Argument
Elizabeth Field’s summary of six research projects on this question, carried out mainly over the last eight years, shows a fairly consistent picture. Re-conviction rates six months after release vary from 17%-20%, after a year they go up to 29%-48% and after two years from 36%-55%. The general picture is that on the average, more than half are re-convicted after two to three years. A few years ago, the Home Office calculated that for the under 17 group, the re-conviction rates after five years was 75% and for the over 17’s group 79%.
The naïve outsider might be excused for not being particularly impressed by these figures. Yet the spokesmen for the system are always proudly pointing to its success rates and reminding you that they would be even better if those nasty “unsuitable” boys don’t get sent. Even critics of the system concede that its success rates are impressive: the British Psychological Society’s memo describes the 50% non re-conviction rate after two years as a “significant contribution”.
Who is being conned? Until we are given a satisfactory definition of just what constitutes a “significant” or a “high” success rate, we cannot really be expected to be convinced by the utilitarian argument. The argument is sometimes refined by noting that the Detention Centre success rate is better than Borstal and much better than Prisons. But these differences obviously arise out of different types at the receiving end—
Donald West’s rather sad conclusion to his discussion on Detention Centres (in The Young Offender) is perhaps worth quoting:
In the light of this sort of conclusion about the Detention Centre’s success and the generally rather dismal picture that the statistics have shown for so long, what is really bizarre is to find people insisting that the system is still at a development stage and we have to give it time to show its worth. To quote from an editorial in the Justice of Peace, etc. (25th March, 1967): “Detention Centres are still an experimental form of custodial sentence. It is too early yet to say whether they have a permanent place in our penal system.” This, after fifteen years—
Judged by the re-conviction rates of those passing through detention centres (more than a half re-convicted in the three years following release) the system is not particularly successful in deterring future criminality but then neither are the approved schools and borstals, which give more prominence to reform by education, social training and individual attention.
From The Inside
The only full study that exists on the attitudes of boys in Detention Centres is that by Anne Dunlop and Sarah McCabe. They interviewed a sample of 107 boys from two detention centres at the beginning and towards the end of their sentences. In terms of their background, the boys showed “a high degree of illegitimacy, of absence from the family home, of unsatisfactory family relationships, of poor educational attainment and of employment that was sporadic, aimless and sometimes dull”. Their attitude at the beginning was subdued and apprehensive although some were resentful and aggrieved. They expressed dislike of specific deprivations such as early rising, physical hardship, no-smoking and other deprivations. They recalled with particular distaste their reception at the centre. Towards the end of the sentence, these deprivations and the various disciplinary measures, tended to be looked upon as minor irritants: the main burden of the sentence was the fact of detention itself and the loss of liberty. Any punitive and deterrent effect that the sentence might have, resides in the enforced deprivation of libertiy itself and not in the elaborate regime devised for the boys. The staff tend to evaluate performance according to conformity to the regime, but as the Quaker report on Detention Centres says:
The statement “All Wardens comment on the excellence of the discipline” (Report of the Work of the Prison Department, 1965) may mean nothing more than “all boys have learnt that it pays to conform”.
And the point is—
“Is it true to say that three months of blind obedience in digging holes, endless P.T. and continual unreasoning deprivation provides the emotive suggestion needed to serve as a deterrent when once more the offender is returned to his environment?”
I have not paid any attention to the extent of violence and brutality against the boys. To do so might be to fall into the trap of attributing this behaviour to the idiosyncratic personalities of a few members of the staff, instead of directing attention to the intrinsic features of the system. Very few people who have any experience of Detention Centre life will deny that the occasional beating up and the more frequent kicking or knocking around occurs. It would be odd if we found otherwise.There has been no really satisfactory account from the inside to base a full picture on. As a sociologist, one expresses the ritualistic hope that future researchers will provide such an account—
Anne Dunlop and Sarah McCabe: Young Men in Detention Centres (1965).
Elizabeth Field: “Research into Detention Centres”, British Journal of Criminology, January, 1969.
Neale Pharoah: “The Long Blunt Shock”, New Society, 26th September, 1963.
Howard League for Penal Reform: Memorandum of Evidence of Detention Centres (1968).British Psychological Society: Memorandum of Evidence of Detention Centres (1968).