December 9, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Short sharp shock – Thatcher’s regime for wayward youth

3 min read
Short Sharp Shock was a prison regime introduced by the Conservative government in the early 1980s for young people that was brutal and didn't work

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.

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.

FIND OUT MORE: When students and locals didn’t get on

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?”

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

      1. As an old man now of 68 I was INDOCTRINATED for life with hatred for the system due to 3 months at Glenochil when I had just turned 15 !! then on to Borstal at Polmont which was a holiday camp for a further 30 months !! then 3 years at Young offenders Barlinnie, then off to Perth Prison for 16months: NO I’m not a master criminal: petty thefts and constant escapes from incarceration led to 11 years in custody from the age of 11 Got marries at 23 no more crime for the rest of my productive professional life-Am now retired millionaire with several grandchildren and married for 46 years_ To this day I hate all public officials- the regime at Glenochil was far worse than I read, frequent assaults on inmates by staff on a daily basis-sleep deprivation- bed blocks turned over in the middle of the night-then 2 litres liquid floor polish poured on your Lino floor and then your powdered tooth powder thrown into this mess- forced to run a full assault course carrying a TELEGRAPH pole with boots that are two sizes too small- I could go on and on and on about the rotten system.

      2. Tom – Sorry for not getting back sooner. The day job has distracted me a bit and I’ve not done enough on this blog. Really interesting story and if you wanted to write a full blog post about it, happy to post it up. Photos always a plus! Best, Tony

      3. I just come across this article, I was in a DC in 1980, I don’t want to go into details as I’m part of a ongoing investigation, what I will say is, the brutality and abuse I received, turned a boy of fifteen, who was a bit naughty, into a person full of hatred and violence, who lost all respect for authority, I can honestly say the treatment I suffered put me on the road to serious organised crime, in my experience these horrific places, completely broke kids who ended up abusing drugs and drink and many died young, I like many of my contemporaries kept the physical discipline, got big and strong, became a pretty good boxer, and became a professional criminal.

      4. Hey – I’m sorry to hear your story. It’s unfortunately very familiar from other visitors to the blog. Interesting it led you down a very unintended path. Hope it’s all turned out well in the end. And keep contributing to the blog. All the best, Tony

    1. I was sent to HMP DC Send in November 1974. The term ‘short, sharp, shock’ was used by the sentencing magistrate when sentencing me. Send was a brutal facility.

    2. I was there around the same time marching in the morning Circuit training every day and you had to pass the hard one to be released happy days

    3. I did a short sharp shock myself in Dover YOI back in the 90s, and what I can tell you from my experience is that most of these young prisoners were hateful, nasty, horrible human beings. While I was there they bullied on boy into hanging himself, and then heard laughing after he did it. I’m not saying bad prison officer’s didn’t exist, but I didn’t meet any of those. This article seems to be a little bit politically motivated by a general anger towards Thatcher and the Torries, which is fine, everyone has their right to their opinion. My personal view is someone needed to step in a try to do something to deter these nasty little bullies, but in reality the ‘short sharp shock’ regime just made the strong stronger, and the weak ruined. I managed to keep my head down and come out in one piece.

  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.

  5. Eastwood park d.c 1979.a most brutal place.every day was pure hell.we were kids in a junior dc and the violence was extreme and carried out in full view of everyone.when the medomsley mob have had their day in court we shall have ours.

  6. I was in Whatton DC in 1978 age 16. Thatchers goverment must have known the system was doomed to fail even in 1979-80. In my opinion the Whitelaw thing was polical hype and the general public were being fooled. Loads of lads I had met in Whatton I would later meet in Borstal and prison in later years. My offending started way before being sent to DC and I suppose although ignorant to the facts I was a constant offender and knew where I was heading. I often look back at DC and it was the worse place I have been, it was actually hell on earth. My thoughts about the system that was run by mostly ex soldiers is we were treated like an enemy. The screws were like sheep and I think each one of them needed to vent their hatred onto us young offenders. I suffered Physical abuse from being a child, DC actually made me become more abusive in my opinion and this effected me for years. Thankfully I have learned the errors of my ways, and for almost 30 years now my life has turned around. I will never forget DC though and the filth that ran it, I think they were bigger criminals than I ever was. Thanks for reading.

    1. Top comment, Mr. Withheld; I was about the same age as you when I received the ‘Six months to two years’ gig at Hindley (I often wonder if ANY ‘trainee’ served ‘six months’ – the average stay was nine…or if one was really ‘well-behaved’, eight months). I remember – more than anything else – the racism, with two warders in one of the two wings which was for ‘Mancs’ forever spewing their abuse on black lads…and there wasn’t many then. There was a Welsh warder (who allegedly played rugby in his youth)…and a Geordie who couldn’t help themselves, with the latter ended up in Colchester prison some years later, so I heard; a screw with less of an attitude (doubt any ‘coon’ from London would be impressed with his bollocks). I was once told many who took jobs in borstals were indeed ex-squaddies…but the kind who raped, murdered and jailed Kenyans throughout the 1950’s…not the WW2 kind.

      To be truthful, after my release in early 1978, I never ‘learned the error’ of my ways – indeed got worse and used to attended anti-Thatcher/Cons party marches and piss off the police, and made friends who still thought it was ‘1967’, smoking pot, living in empty London buildings which were owned by foreigners who hardly lived there – before getting a job on the railways (which calmed me down a bit).

      It’s true about you suspecting ‘Willy’ Whitelaw was wailing to his supporters (who still were ‘old-school’ Britons), eager to see the young crushed and intimidated. His hype just made working-class white people, and black folk even more eager to get to a situation we’re in today. Could you imagine BLM (and other ‘lefty’ organisations) in 1976/80 being heard. The weirdest thing is that the third (and fourth) generation of Windrush families nowadays have erased their fear and mistrust of ‘Babylon’, and working-class white lads realise they’ve been fooled throughout the latter quarter of the 20th century…and this is the result today – disrespect of authority, with not even the Daily Mail can shout down.

  7. Just seen the video about Haslar dc on Vimeo. I was there in 1977. I agree with all the comments on here too and as Robert has said, marriage with a child on the way for me in 1980 kept me from reoffending.

  8. I was sentence 6 months short sharp shock at Send dc in 1982. I was physically and mentally tortured also sleep deprivation was involved all this by grown men or so called ex army and police officers I would like to know why it completely messed up my life. I would like to know if anyone else feels the same. It’s wrong

    1. I was in Send in 1980 just as the short sharp shock started one day the screws were wearing civilian clothes next day they had uniforms . Went straight to their already depraved heads . Wouldn’t mind bumping into a few of the bastards now

  9. I even remember officers names someone should be answering to this. WHY. I was the youngest person in Her Majesty’s Prison at the time

  10. Just another excuse for the bully boy officers to revive their national service methods, disgraceful what they got away with , rehabilitation and punishment ? Nonsense unadulterated brutality.

  11. I was firmly in favour of Lord Whitelaw introducing the Short Sharp Shock regimes of theearly 1980s. This was precisely what hose louts and thugs deserved -they were made to wear proper old style inmate uniforms, to be thoroughly drilled by proper old style uniformed officers. It should all be brought back just as it was then along with the application of the tawsw for infringments of the rules

    1. Hi – My Dad was a probation officer at the time. Trouble is the regime failed and was scrapped. Certainly toughened up those behind bars but the re-offending rate was high – and they were stronger. There is something to be said about the old borstal system in comparison to the youth offender regime today – teaching practical skills, etc. But the “short sharp shock” – hmmmm….think we might have to beg to differ 🙂


  12. I was sent to send detention centre on 2nd December 1980 & released on 15th January 1981.
    The first thing I got on arrival was a proper slap around the face that made me stagger backwards. Then I was made to stand naked in front of 2 officers & put in a cold bath, made to wash hair with floor soap and then kicked up the corridor with my kit held high at the double.
    Wondered what the hell was going on. Spent the next 6+ weeks getting daily slaps, kicks, verbal abuse etc. I remember all their bloody names, especially the famous nigh watchman nicknamed mr chips. He used to pull you so hard against the square railings you were nearly turned into chips. Some of the officers were ok but most were just sadistic bullies. That winter was one of the coldest on record with snow drifts up to the windows on the dormatories & we were dragged out of our beds on Christmas night & forced to do a blanket shake in our underpants in the parade square. Very funny not. Can’t say anything good about the place really & I would think that most of the bullies are now dead or enjoying their index linked tax payer funded pensions.

    Andy Sullivan

    1. Andy – This blog post has certainly resonated with a lot of people out there. I need to put up a post with memories from a lot of you if you want to share more. And photos always good though appreciate that might not have been possible at the time. Best, Tony

  13. Those louts and thugs needed a damm good hard lesson – regular parade ground drill, proper drab penal uniform/short back and sides, hard work and made to conform to regulations by stern uniformed officers. The 1970s had witnessed a sharp decline in standards in terms of lanky long haired louts in low waisted flaired jeans lounging on the streets showing disobedience and vulgarity in towns and cities. The birch in the Isle of Man should never have been ended. Lord Whitelaw was perceptive enough to realise the way things had gone. The trouble was that with the inception of Short Sharp Shock – it allowed the bloody left wing sociologists to get their imput in terms of negative devaluation – there was an example of a trendy low waisted flaired trouser sociologist from Lancaster visiting New Hall, at Flocton near Wakefield – he went round with his hands in his pockets wearing a white suit and long lanky hair! That tells the story!

    1. That is all very well but I wonder where people like you draw the line? You are obviously oblivious to the actual abuse that went on in these places or are you? When I was sent to DC I know I deserved my punishment but not the regular mental and physical abuse we all received. Your remarks are some of the most judgemental I have read in some time. These hate factory’s just made criminals worse with almost no chance of rehabilitation. Do you understand that abuse only breeds abuse that’s why these places were abolished?

    2. I would bet my life that you’re an ex-screw you silly old bastard! How can you sanction brutality? You fucking cretin! If your dof did something wrong you wouldn’t kick it round the fucking head would you? People like you make me vomit! You haven’t even got the damned balls to leave your name have you?? I hope you get this you evil old bastard! FROM AN EX- PRISONER OF KIRKLEVINGTON DETENTION CENTRE!

      Colin Adamson

      1. Well said Colin, I was in Glenochil dc in Scotland and those Bastards were the worst so-called human beings I ever encountered,and just to show that the regime never worked I was remanded to Perth prison the day after I was released from DC,I hope every screw that worked in Glenochil is roasting in hell now fucking sadist Bastards.

  14. you have not mentioned the One Main D.C-North Sea Camp-They offered this treatment for up to 9 months-Going up in 3,6 and 9 months stays-So a Long, sharp shock stay-)

  15. There were numerous DC’s in the UK, From my own experience and other people I have spoken to they were all the same hate factories.
    I know in the 1970s you were either sentenced to 3 or 6 months. Sorry but treatment sounds to good, very harsh punishment is closer. Some people would liken DC to being captured by enemy soldiers and treated as such.

  16. They should bring back the old style regimes – proper prison grey uniforms, short back and sides, Hyatt handcuffs/leg irons, hard labour, old style officers uniforms with plenty of hard labour and drill. Manx Birching should be re-introduced for infringement of regulations. It is what is now required.

  17. I read with interest the stories from the boys who spent their time at Send D.C. I was a full-time teacher there even after it became an adult prison – and boys talked. We did have some who were ‘over-bearing’ and they didn’t last long. The daily time-table didn’t leave much space. School morning or afternoon, then all at classed in the evening. Mostly they worked in the green house the rest of the time. We had a fair outside for a few years, where their parents came to watch the best boys do a gym display. We had a carol-service and Christmas play, and the place was decorated (I know, I planned most of it). Most of the teachers were part-time and retired. Some of the boys learnt to read for the first time. I meet a few of them when out and about in London, and a few others in other prisons. Most of them remembered Send as a clean place that ran fairly well. They liked Fridays when they collected the sweets and other goods paid for by the point system for good work. Ties changed colour as they progressed. We build a huge smoke-breathing dragon for the Queen’s jubilee, and took it out to a manor house, gave a gym display there as well. We even had two days of T.V. crews there on Two occasions. I would like a copy of the broadcast.
    The place changed overnight from boys to men after a fire in another prison.
    We were not like the Scottish D.C. We had no suicides! – from the Dragon Lady!

  18. Couple of attempted suicides when I was in DC in 1980. Never taught me anything , got fit and been in and out of trouble ever since, stupid thing is I was accepted into the army but they didn’t want me when I got out.

Leave a Reply