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Borstals were run by HM Prison Service and intended to reform seriously delinquent young people. The word is sometimes used loosely to apply to other kinds of youth institution or reformatory, such as Approved Schools and Detention Centres. The court sentence was officially called "borstal training". Borstals were originally for offenders under 21, but in the 1930s the age was increased to under 23. The Criminal Justice Act 1982 abolished the borstal system in the UK, introducing youth custody centres instead.
The Gladstone Committee (1895) first proposed the concept of the borstal, wishing to separate youths from older convicts in adult prisons. It was the task of Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise (1857–1935), a prison commissioner, to introduce the system, and the first such institution was established at Borstal Prison in a village called Borstal, near Rochester, Kent, England in 1902. The system was developed on a national basis and formalised in the Prevention of Crime Act 1908.
The regimen in these institutions was designed to be "educational rather than punitive", but it was highly regulated, with a focus on routine, discipline and authority. Borstal institutions were designed to offer education, regular work and discipline, though one commentator has claimed that "more often than not they were breeding grounds for bullies and psychopaths." Some uncorroborated anecdotal evidence exists of unofficial brutality, both by staff towards the inmates and between inmates – though possibly no more than is the case for the prison system as a whole. In the 1930s, the borstal system produced a re-offending rate of around 30%, as opposed to a modern (2014) youth re-offending rate of at least 75%.
The Criminal Justice Act 1982 abolished the borstal system in the UK, introducing youth custody centres instead.
Except in Northern Ireland, the only corporal punishment officially available in borstals was the birch for mutiny or assaulting an officer, and this could be imposed only by the visiting magistrates, subject in each case to the personal approval of the Home Secretary, just as in adult prisons. Only male inmates over 18 might be so punished. This power was very rarely used – there were only 7 birching cases in borstals in the 10 years to 1936. This birching power was available only in England and Wales (not in Scottish borstals). Caning as a more day-to-day punishment was used in the single borstal in Northern Ireland but was not authorised in England, Scotland or Wales. Confusion on this matter arises perhaps because in Approved Schools, a quite different kind of youth institution based more on the open "boarding school" model, caning was a frequent official punishment for boys (maximum age 19).
A similar system under the name "borstal" or "borstal school" has also been introduced in several other Commonwealth countries.
In India, 10 States namely, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab (India), Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu have borstal schools in their respective jurisdictions. Tamil Nadu had the highest capacity for keeping 667 inmates. Haryana and Himachal Pradesh are the only states that have the capacity to lodge female inmates in 3 of their Borstal Schools. There are no borstal schools in any of the union territories.
In Ireland the Criminal Justice Act, 1960 (Section 12) removed the term "borstal" from official use. This was part of a policy to broaden the system from reform and training institutions to a place of detention for youths between 17 and 21 for any sentence which carried a prison term. The only borstal in the state was based for most of its existence in Clonmel, in County Tipperary. Originally founded in 1906, it finally closed in 1956, when the remaining detainees were transferred to the newly established St. Patrick's Institution in Dublin.