Short sharp shock – Thatcher’s regime for wayward youth

Not long after the 1979 election, Home Secretary William Whitelaw had announced he was going full steam ahead on a key manifesto promise – the Short Sharp Shock.

To a euphoric Tory party conference in October 1979, the urbane and aristocratic Whitelaw told delighted delegates that detention centres for teen lawbreakers would no longer be ‘holiday camps’.  This played on widely believed, media stories of young hooligans leading cosseted lives behind bars.  “Life will be conducted at a swift tempo,” he assured the party.

The belief was that a regime of early wake up calls, military drill and manual labour over a three month period would shock young offenders out of a life of crime.  To break even the most determined spirit, periods of recreation could be denied, silence was the general rule with only 30 minutes of chat between prisoners permitted each day.

The Short Sharp Shock regime kind of resembled the opening half of the movie Full Metal Jacket – a mindless ultra-disciplinarian series of routines that aimed to bury liberal attitudes to offender rehabilitation once and for forever.  This was going to be punishment pure and simple and the duly traumatised young criminals would keep their noses clean from then on.

Curiously, prisoners at one of the four Short Sharp Shock centres, Glenochil in Scotland, were referred to as ‘trainees’.   They were assessed in the mundane tasks they were ordered to perform, like cleaning the floors, and given colour coded tokens to mark out levels of achievement.

NPG x171951; William Stephen Ian Whitelaw, Viscount Whitelaw by Bassano
Whitelaw – enforcer of the Short Sharp Shock

Under the terms of Whitelaw’s 1980 Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act, any young offender banged up for less than four months at Glenochil could expect a regimented hell.  Dormitories spotless by 6.45am while prison officers with peaked caps and pulled down shirtsleeves tipped over their bed mattress for any minor infraction and ordered it remade.

Marching was seen to be the idea therapy for these youngsters.  Marched to breakfast, marched to their cells, marched to the work areas and then marched to their tea break.  They were even forced to jog on the spot until told to stop.

Some of this simply echoed the kind of regimes that already existed in borstals but with greater intensity and over a shorter time period.  But it also signaled a view in government circles that a crackdown was needed on Britain’s wayward youth, a reversal of the permissive society kicked off in the 1960s and perceived to have set in train some kind of moral decline.

But it wasn’t morals that these young primarily lacked.  It was jobs in the real world.  Most of those sent to the designated Short Sharp Shock centres had committed acts of theft or stolen vehicles and something like 90%, according to the Sunday Times, had no work at the time of offending.

In an unfortunate twist for the government, these kids with little by way of a future often found the regime a relief from the drudgery outside.   Effectively, it took their minds off how dreadful things had become in their shattered communities.

As one youth mused.

“I can’t say whether I’ll go out and pinch again or not, but I can tell you that drilling hasn’t made any difference.  It makes me better, I think.  I enjoy it, it passes the time more quickly and it makes us fit.  Next time, we’ll just run faster from the coppers won’t we?”

9 thoughts on “Short sharp shock – Thatcher’s regime for wayward youth

  1. It done nothing for me except made me fitter and more able to lose the old bill when having it on my toes.

  2. I was in New Hall detention centre in 1980.
    The place did nothing to stop young men reoffending.
    After there i was sent to Hindley borstal in 82,Northallerton in 83-84.
    Kirkham prison in 1985 and Lindholme 1988.
    Since 1989 i have worked for the same company to this day,and have been married 22 years with 5 children.
    It was only the responsibility of having children and being married that changed my ways.
    Short sharp shock,borstal etc were a complete waste of time!.

    1. It was a horrible policy and of course they ditched it quietly. Sorry for taking so long to get back to you – haven’t been updating the blog of late. But glad you enjoyed the article. Or rather, it brought back some memories.

  3. Done 6 month detention centre in 1973 and then two lots of Borstal,Guys Marsh and then Portland.Detention centres were great for getting you fit and off the fags but like all nicks two days after release they are forgotten about ,hence why 70% have reoffended within 2 years of release.

  4. Politically legalised institutions for sadistic ‘ officers’ who got their kicks physically abusing their charges. Yet another reminder of the Thatcher dictatorship conveniently forgotten by the British media.

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