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Dartmoor Prison (Use As Borstal Institution)

Volume 414: debated on Thursday 11 October 1945

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will reconsider his decision to use part of the convict prison at Dartmoor as a Borstal institution.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will reconsider his decision to make Dartmoor prison a temporary Borstal institution.


asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he is aware of the dismay caused by the suggestion that His Majesty's prison, Dartmoor, be used as a Borstal institution for boys; and why Dartmoor was selected for this purpose.

:While apologising for the length of the answer, I am glad to have this opportunity of making a statement to Parliament on the subject. The increase in crime, unfortunately apparently inseparable from time of war, among youths has placed so severe a strain on the Borstal system that unless immediate and drastic steps are taken the training on which the system is based will be denied at the most critical stage to those who, the Courts have decided, are in need of it.

The simple fact of the present situation is that owing to the large increase in the number of youths committed by the courts for Borstal training and the shortage of accommodation, some 600 youths are at the present time being detained in ordinary prisons awaiting vacancies in Borstal institutions. Thus they are being kept in conditions where they are being denied any form of training for an average period of about four months. Immediate action is required to remedy this most unsatisfactory state of affairs.

To make full provision for the increased numbers, several additional Borstal establishments will be required and the Prison Commissioners have examined and are examining every possible method of finding suitable accommodation. In particular they are hopeful of obtaining some camps in the near future, but the mere obtaining of camp accommodation is not a solution to the immediate problem. Camps have to be equipped and staffed and living accommodation must be made available for married staff and their families. Such accommodation is not generally available in camps or their immediate neighbourhood. To build such accommodation must necessarily take time, to say nothing of the fact that it would be out of the question to give first priority to the provision of houses required for the accommodation of the staff to be employed in such camps.

I was left, therefore, with the problem of making use of some building immediately available to the Prison Commissioners and of adapting it for Borstal purposes. This in the past has been done in the case of Portland and other prison establishments which have been converted into Borstal institutions.

The only building available is Dartmoor, where there are facilities for outdoor work, for workshop training and for exercise and recreation, and where there is accommodation for the staff, including married staff. As regards the isolation of Dartmoor, it is of course difficult to com- bine the advantage of proximity to a large town with the advantage of a situation where there are opportunities for outside work, and some of the most successful Borstal institutions—for example, that at the North Sea Camp—are in isolated situations.

While, therefore, I am in full sympathy with those friends of the Borstal system who are anxious that the premises shall be the best possible, I am satisfied that it would be wrong by failing to make use of the only establishment at which Borstal training can be carried out at once, to continue the present evil of detaining youths for long periods in prisons where it is impossible to give them the kind of training which they ought to be receiving or, to avoid this, revert to the practice of early release before the training has had a fair chance of being effective, a policy which, when tried during part of the war, was severely criticised by judges and chairmen of Quarter Sessions.

Does the Home Secretary think that if he had tried to find a more unsuitable place than Dartmoor for a Borstal prison he could possibly have found one?

:When dealing with these lads how is it that the official mind turns on prison, instead of taking over some of the big country houses which could be used for their training? Would the Home Secretary consider spending a few months in prison himself to see what it is like?

I have sufficient experience of prison from the outside to feel quite sure that I should not benefit by a course inside. I would like to assure the hon. Gentleman that we are examining every possibility, and that we shall use any building or estate that is suitable. In addition to accommodation for the lads, however, we must have sufficient accommodation for the married staffs we shall have to employ.

Will the Home Secretary give an undertaking that this step will be regarded as a temporary expedient, and that as soon as other accommodation is available Borstal will be moved from Dartmoor?

As soon as sufficient other accommodation is available we shall move the boys from this place. As a convinced supporter of the Borstal system during 22 years' experience of Quarter Sessions, I came to this conclusion with the greatest reluctance. But I was faced with the alternative of seeing the whole system break down, which I could not contemplate.

Has my right hon. Friend considered the question of using some of the very large hospital accommodation which was built for the American Forces in the Shrewsbury area and elsewhere, which would be big enough to house all those who had to be housed, including staff?

As I indicated in my answer, we have a number of camps under active consideration, and perhaps we shall use some of them. I am faced with the necessity of getting these 600 boys out of prison, where they are sewing mail bags, which is not any part of the Borstal system of training.

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider using certain well equipped and large aerodromes which are no longer required for Service purposes?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Dartmoor has already been condemned as unsuitable for criminals? How has he come to the conclusion that these conditions are, even temporarily, suitable in this case? Surely he can find something better.

I have been quite frank with the House, and I will go so far as to say that when this was first put up to me I marked the paper, "I am revolted by this suggestion."

I am glad to know that for once my hon. Friend and I are in agreement. I am faced with the fact that either the Borstal system must break down, and these lads kept in prison, or I must use this alternative which, so far as I have been able to discover, after the most diligent search, is the only one available.

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of using redundant R.A.F. hostels or some of our aerodromes in East Anglia for this purpose while this difficulty continues?

As the right hon. Gentleman has said that these boys are at present incarcerated in cells, can he say whether they will be confined at Dartmoor in other than cells? Is he aware of the climatic conditions of Dartmoor in winter, and will be consider, as this gaol was built for prisoners-of-war in the years between 1812–14, whether it is not more suitable for demolition than for use as a Borstal institution?

If I can get the boys there, they will be employed in outdoor work on the farm, and in some of the excellent workshops there, where they can be given some training. As it happens, I am particularly well acquainted with the climatic conditions of Dartmoor, because I did most of my courting there. Dartmoor is the name of a very large expanse of country which contains more than the prison. These lads will get the chance which the courts desire them to have, and the moment I can find other suitable accommodation for them they will go to it. It would be a disastrous thing to keep 600 youths—and it will be an increasing number—doing nothing more than the jobs that can be provided for them under the present circumstances.

The following Question stood on the Order Paper in the name of Mr. JOHN PATON:

"To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will state the highest and lowest figures of rainfall in Prince town during the last 20 years and the average annual rainfall during the same period; and if these figures were considered before he decided to use Dartmoor Prison as a Borstal institution."

I must ask the hon. Lady whether she is asking a Question which she herself has put on the Order Paper?

I understood, Mr. Speaker, that I could ask a Question in the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich (Mr. Paton). I apologise.

I am afraid not. The Question can only be asked by the Member whose name is on the Order Paper.