But if not, you’ll surely recognise her soon as the lovable ‘matron’ on ITV1’s Bring Back Borstal, where she dishes out sensible and sensitive advice and support to 14 young men. All have a history of offending behaviour – from shop lifting to actual bodily harm – and many have spent time behind bars, as well as periods in care.
They all agreed to experience the tough, but focused, regime of a 1930s borstal for a new social experiment that would compare the regime, and impressive results, of an old-fashioned borstal with today’s young offender institutions (YOIs).
Here, Jenny tells Community Care why she agreed to take part in the programme and gives us a behind-the-scenes account of what the unusual experience has taught her about different ways of working with young offenders.
The unknown world of TV
“A seemingly inconspicuous meeting with my dear friend Debbie led to an opportunity that would never have occurred to me.
“While working with Debbie during my time as a resettlement worker in prisons and YOI’s, we often shared our delight at the change in some very unexpected people, and sadly, the backwards steps of others we were sure would turn their lives around.
“Our joint desire to effect change, no matter how small, led me to accept her drive to push me into the unknown world of TV. I was called, interviewed and chosen for the role of ‘matron’ in ITV1’s four-part series Bring Back Borstal.
“Fourteen lads aged 18-23 were carefully selected to take part in this social experiment recreating the environment and ethos of a 1930s borstal: daily exercise, no-nonsense discipline and developing a sense of purpose through employment.
“A borstal was known as we now know YOIs, but without the lack of hope many YOIs now contain. The idea of the experiment was to test whether we could compare the historical aims for these young people, and the results – three quarters of young men didn’t reoffend after leaving borstal – with the reality for young offenders today.
Positive role models
“My personal drive was to ensure the lads were kept safe, cared for and cared about at all times. The borstal regime can be harsh, both physically and mentally, and I knew that to be a female figure within such an establishment offered an opportunity to be a positive female role model, which not all of the boys had had before.
“I myself was taken into care aged nine, and was given the opportunity to rebuild my fractured self through the love and care of my social workers. This didn’t, however, lessen the guilt I carried for taking my brothers into the care system too.
“That decision, which they resisted, has left me with a deep desire to give other lads the opportunities my brothers were not lucky enough to have. I feel that every time I take on a pastoral role such as this, I make another ‘spiritual amend’ to them.
“The process of recreating and living in a borstal pushed us all to the absolute limits, mentally, physically and spiritually. We had a group of lads who had been let down by many professionals for the majority of their lives, many of whom had grown up in care.
“They were scared and excited in equal measures, needing huge amounts of support off camera. They had the support of a welfare team at all times, and got up to all sorts of high jinks away from the glare of the cameras.
“I have wonderful memories of seeing the lads play fighting with the officers there to dish our discipline and guidance. It was an important opportunity for free and appropriate play, which is taken for granted by many and not often afforded to children who grow up in households full of conflict. It was a joy to watch and to observe the growing relationships between the boys and the officers and staff team, both on and off screen.
“The officers gave the boys guidance on life, together with references about them for when they left the borstal. This male relationship is sorely missing for many of our young people in the care system. It means many lads are not able to benefit from the life lessons those decent fathers, older brothers and uncles can share.
“The hours were long, with staff sometimes working a 16-hour day. And our home for the duration was their home – the borstal. You felt like your life had been left behind, you became totally engaged in the lads and their lives. It felt like an absolute honour.
“Change in these lads’ lives came slowly, but the experiment wanted to offer a positive start. Even for the lads who did not complete their stay, the majority report good things.
“The current facts from the cohort of 14 are:
- There has been no reoffending since the boys left the borstal
- 2 lads are now in college
- 5 lads have new employment
- 1 lad is in voluntary employment
- 1 lad was supported to find stable housing
- 1 lad is setting up his own charity
“The change in many of the lads was significant. For me, a particular highlight was their growing understanding about how to behave towards women. The bad language ground to an almost halt, and respectful attitude towards females began to evolve.
“Together with Sally-Wentworth James, head of education, they began to see women as people rather than objects. Their attitude was not a surprise to me. So many of them had been so badly let down by their mothers – a deeply painful time.
“It will not surprise anyone who knows me to learn that I am in touch with all of the care leavers, all of whom are working hard towards a life of happiness.
Should we bring back borstal?
“My views towards youth justice have always been that the sentence is the punishment and any period of incarceration must be a time of opportunity. It sickens me to continue to meet young people who are not able to read, write or perform even the most basic of work tasks.
“It equally appalls me that young offenders are written off so quickly, with any trauma from their past being seen as ‘excuses’ by adults rather than reasons, which can help understand their offending behaviour and be worked through in time.
“The question is, of course, should we bring back borstal? I am not qualified to answer that, but I am qualified to state this: As long as we deny young people vital interventions in their chaotic family lives, and continued aspirations for their futures, we will continue to see YOI’s and adult prisons full of people devoid of hope for the future.”