An end to 'borstal' detentions

Sat, Apr 7, 2012, 01:00

Sir, – The decision by Government to formally end the detention of 16- and 17-year-olds at St Patrick’s institution in Dublin (Front page, April 3rd) is to be welcomed.

However, the enormity of the failure of every government since the publication of the Whitaker Report in 1985 can be measured by an understanding of how and why St Patrick’s came about in the first place.

It began its life as a borstal institution in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, in 1906. The world’s first borstal opened in Kent in 1901 with the purpose of punishing and reforming male offenders between the ages of 16 and 21. This was believed to be the age range at which the habitual criminal career began. When Clonmel opened its doors to a newly-created category of offenders known as “juvenile adults” the institution was seen as enlightened and ambitious. Every hour of each boy’s day was strictly timetabled to ensure he was occupied at education, training and physical activity, thereby hopefully distracted from corruptive influences or thoughts. While those ideas were developed for a different era they were the result of a lengthy engagement with the most up-to-date psychological, scientific and medical research available.

Borstal was seen by politicians, the public and penal administrators as a “big idea”.

In 1956, Clonmel borstal was transferred to Dublin where it reopened as St Patrick’s institution (the word borstal was dropped in the early 1960s). Unfortunately, very little has changed about the institution or its guiding principles since that time. In fact, any quantifiable change has only been for the worse.

So much about St Patrick’s is now so much worse than its forerunner, namely its ability to address questions of literacy, education and repeat offending.

Ironically an institution that was initially established to arrest the criminal career before it had a chance to mature, evolved to become a breeding-ground for future adult offenders.

How did successive ministers for justice allow this happen? Could it be that our colonial governors of 100 years ago were more enlightened for their time, than any modern government since the publication of the Whitaker recommendations 27 years ago? When was the last time an Irish government did anything enlightened or ambitious in the field of penal administration? Until the last remaining 16- and 17-year-olds have finally vacated St Patrick’s institution it is safe to say that borstal remains alive and well in Ireland. – Yours, etc,

Dr CONOR REIDY,

Silver View,

Nenagh, Co Tipperary.