Jenny Molloy: ‘ITV1’s Bring Back Borstal pushed us all to our absolute limits’

Care leaver and author Jenny Molloy takes us behind-the-scenes of a new TV social experiment with young offenders

Bring Back Borstal
Author and care leaver Jenny Molloy as 'matron' in Bring Back Borstal (credit: ITV)

You might know care leaver, author and social work champion Jenny Molloy from her best-selling book Hackney Child or any number of her inspirational TV interviews.

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.

Wonderful memories

“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 results

“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.”

The next episode of Bring Back Borstal is on Thursday 29 January at 9pm. You can watch previous episodes on ITV Player. Find Jenny Molloy on Twitter: @HackneyChild

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4 Responses to Jenny Molloy: ‘ITV1’s Bring Back Borstal pushed us all to our absolute limits’

  1. Dave elliott January 23, 2015 at 7:53 pm #

    Hi there

    I am 50 years old and spent 5 months in borstal may I say that what’s on television is nothing like the real thing .they would never get away with there attitude . and the beatings they would have had could not be shown on television


    Many thanks


  2. Sam January 30, 2015 at 9:50 am #

    I have watched the series with great interest and lived seeing the individuals become a team. I was also an avid fan of another social readjustment series about national service. I have never been into a YOI but have a keen personal interest in giving people a chance. I agree with Dave that the experiment shown cannot recreate borstal as it was because of the cameras. I also agree with Jenny Malloy that leaving young without hope is wrong.

    In the 80s my husband and myself offered a Youngman who had not long left YOI a Jo and a home. He was lovely, he lacked skills time management and family. He stayed with us about 6 months being completely absorbed into my young family, he cried frequently he was never shouted at bullied or chastised whilst living with us and he found I hard. He left without word one night taking money and simple household its such as plates cups linen etc. Under his mattress was a whole host of things,he had acquired from our home over time.

    These experiments are fantastic for those who are part of it. They have the best of support by the best , but we must remember that away from cameras and social experiments things would be very different, in an ordinary establishment. There would be those in charge who don’t have the skills and where ethical and moral consideration would not be of the same high standard.

    These experiments do show in my opinion, that there is significant benefit for those who partake, we just have to find away of delivering such a service enmass that wont traumatise
    Rather than help

  3. amanda January 31, 2015 at 6:51 pm #

    I absolutely loved this series of bring back borstal. As I did with Bad Lads Army.
    Yes, it is true that the borstal series does not mirror the real borstal’s of the late 60’s/ early 70’s. As my uncle has told me some horror stories about his time spent in one.
    Times are different now. It’s about trust, communication and respect. It would have been back then too. But expressing emotion was un-heard of.
    Bring back borstal was a joy to watch. I felt so much for all of the lads there. And so sad for the ones who left early or asked to leave.
    The last episode brought tears to my eyes.
    I truly believe programmes for young offenders such as this would be of great benefit to the lads themselves and to society.
    I hope it will become part of the youth offending system. And I hope there will be another series very soon.

  4. Stevo February 4, 2015 at 11:52 pm #

    Good series. Although those 2 scousers (brothers) were a pair of knobs….