It had been late when Colin finished relating his tale of how he had ended up being sentenced to Borstal training and we had called it a night. We saw each other at least once a week, either casually in the village or in the local. I managed to pin him down a couple of weeks later and asked if he wouldn’t mind telling me what the experience had been like for him. After a bit of thought he agreed to do so.
I ordered up a couple of pints of Wainwright, we settled in next to the fire and this is what he told me.
Hat field Borstal was a completely different type of place to all the other institutions I had been in for the previous months. The warders wore civvies, there were no walls or fences surrounding the establishment and I was, for the first time in a long time, treated like something resembling a human being, albeit a troubled and flawed member of the species.
Unlike the other places I had been held in I can’t actually remember arriving at the borstal. It resembled an army camp, there was an admin centre where the officers spent much of their time, and this was also where the educational classes were held. Various other buildings housed training facilities and workshops for the maintenance teams. All these buildings bordered a large expanse of grass, a quadrangle if you will. At the base of the quad (as you entered the camp) were 3 accommodation blocks (called houses) each one housing 60 young men in 3 dormitories of 20.
I was allocated to the middle block, the House master was called Mr Craig, all the warders were addressed as Mister, not sir or boss, but there was no deviation to this rule. I remember Mr Craig as a genuinely nice man who, I think, believed in what he was doing. This would be around the time (1971) when attempts at rehabilitation of young offenders were really starting to get some traction.
It might sound a little strange, but given the restrictions placed on us all I quite enjoyed my time at Hatfield. I was under observation by a psychiatrist and had to meet with him about once a fortnight but by now I had been “clean” for nearly five months and had filled out a bit.
Within a couple of weeks I had palled up with a group of 4 other guys in my dorm. Dave (Ting) Tingle was from my home town and I knew him quite well, he was in for burgling chemist shops as well. Two of the others were Everton fans, in for causing affray and committing criminal damage on a pub full of Liverpool supporters. They were known to us as Wacker and Marso, a couple of big good natured lads who loved a scrap but were fiercely loyal to their club and their mates. The fifth member was a little red haired Glaswegian, we called him wee Jimmy. He said he was a member of a Glasgow gang called the “Sooth Side Cumbie”. They were noted for their smart dress and their complete ruthlessness in battle but again wee Jimmy was a good pal to me throughout my time in Hatfield. He also claimed to know a certain Marie Lawrie quite well, we all knew her as Lulu. We never did find out the truth of this though.
The daily routine was generally monotonous, I was lucky enough to secure a job in the educational block, helping the outside lecturers to set up the classes, this meant me spending quite a bit of time in the company of the warders, which meant that a certain element within the camp saw me as a bit of a turncoat. Again, the fact that my closest mates inside were pretty tough guys helped me out, no one dared to challenge Wacker and Marso and wee Jimmy, for all he was only a little guy, had a formidable reputation.
I won’t bore you with all the details of the daily grind, we had a film show once a fortnight and got to play a bit of Rugby, even going to play away on a couple of occasions. Our rugby coach was actually a teacher at a local grammar school who came in specially to coach us. I remember that one time he arranged a match for us against a club from Hessle. Getting out for the day was a dream come true for us and we always tried to give good account of ourselves. After the game the Hessle boys came onto the coach with a big steel bucket of beer, we got maybe a pint each but we were drunk enough on that and the whole euphoria of the occasion for one to be plenty.
I never saw any real violence inside Hatfield, I was threatened a couple of times over my closeness to the warders and there was the occasional fist fight behind the gym but nothing major ever happened. There were three incidents though that are worth recalling.
For the sake of expediency I became a regular church goer, I even took confirmation classes and became confirmed as a member of the Church of England. We went out to church on a Sunday morning, 7 or 8 of us I think, including Ting. Wacker, Marso and Jimmy were Catholics so they couldn’t swing it. The great thing about going to church was that we were allowed to attend the church youth club on Sunday nights. I actually met a girl there who I went on to have an interesting week with when I took my home leave, but that’s another story. All the girls loved a bad boy and they didn’t come much badder in that village youth club than the local Borstal boys.
One of the things that new inmates had to do, along with the incorrigibles and the very slow witted was some form of menial work. I was allocated to the farming crew. We went out one morning in bitterly cold conditions to hand pick beetroot for a local farmer. There was a bit of a mini revolt, the plants were that cold the leaves could actually be snapped in half. I found myself, less than 2 weeks in, being the spokesman for the “strikers”. Fortunately, although the farmer wanted us all flogged within an inch of our lives the escort was a bit more sympathetic and had us all issued with woollen mittens. Great until the warmth of our hands melted the ice! Anyway, we did a bit of a Cool Hand Luke and picked the field in double time, then back to the camp and the comfort of the stove.
The final thing that always stuck in my mind was what happened to wee Jimmy. After being together for a good few months the 5 of us had become close and we all swore we would be best mates forever and always keep in touch. Jimmy was due to be released before the rest of us; he got his release date for the end of September and his home leave week for the middle of August. Home leave was a very big deal for all of us and Jimmy was no exception. He was issued with a return rail warrant between Doncaster and Glasgow and a couple of quid for expenses. We saw him off in the morning with lots of banter about being careful and the like and told him we’d see him in a week. We never saw him again. Jimmy was the first absconder I knew and we couldn’t figure out why. He had 5 weeks left to do when he got back, so far as we all knew he wasn’t in any real trouble and his parents were looking forward to having him home. My closeness to the admin office meant I could find stuff out and Jimmy so far as I could tell was never captured, certainly not before I left the camp, at any rate.
I had my home leave in September, which I spent at the home of my aunt and uncle, my stepdad was completely finished with me. The girl from the youth club visited me a couple of times but it didn’t really go anywhere and I was eventually released on licence at the end of October 1971. I had spent just over 13 months inside during which time I had been in four different institutions including 2 Victorian prisons. I had no home to go to, although my grandmother offered to take me in, but one of my uncles on my dad’s side got me a job as a steel erectors mate with his company. I think my family thought that getting me away from certain influences wouldn’t be a bad thing, unfortunately they couldn’t have been more wrong, but that’s another story.
I’ll tell you what I learned though; you could get by in prison and still stay true to yourself by following the rules, being respectful of authority and understanding why you were inside. I think the problem now is that too many criminals see themselves as victims and I also think a succession of governments, for whatever reason, have allowed this to promulgate. There are no boundaries inside prisons anymore so it is little wonder that drug use, violence and quasi religious fanaticism are allowed free rein. I don’t advocate punishment for the sake of it but I am certain that if we had more prison officers, a stricter regime, sentences that fit the crime and a clamp down on Islamist gangs, drug dealers and the like prisons would be safer places for the inmates and warders. There might even be less crime on the streets.