September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Short Sharp Shock – nightmare prison regime

5 min read
Short Sharp Shock was a military-style prison regime for young offenders that wrecked lives and didn't work as Tony McMahon discovers
short sharp shock Whitelaw

One of the first measures introduced by the new Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 was the so-called ‘short, sharp, shock’ policy for young offenders. A regime of strict military-style discipline and strenuous physical activity designed to remove criminality from a youth’s character and wipe the smile off their face. It was also described as red meat for the blue rinses – a classic Tory policy aimed at appeasing the elderly attendees of the annual Conservative Party conference.

The problem was – it didn’t work.

The Conservative Home Secretary in Thatcher’s first term, William Whitelaw, was an urbane aristocrat who unlike other men of his breeding in the government didn’t seem to view the petit-bourgeois Prime Minister with total disdain. If anything, he took her under his wing. But Whitelaw often seemed pained at having to implement measures designed to please the party base and the right-wing tabloid newspapers.

However, he set about imposing Short, Sharp, Shock across the UK. He presented it as tough love:

“A short personal reminder early in a potential career of crime might prevent the tragedy of some young people drifting through a sequence of increasingly of serious offences until they find themselves hardened young thugs incarcerated in our prisons.”

Well that was the theory.

Other countries were wrestling with juvenile crime at the time but came up with radically different solutions. New Zealand forced young offenders to attend parliamentary debates! Enough to make some reconsider a life of crime apparently. While the United States made youngsters visit prisons where hardened inmates serving a long stretch warned them what would happen if they didn’t mend their ways. In 1979, the BBC broadcast a documentary on this approach titled: ‘Jailhouse Shock’.

Short Sharp Shock is rolled out

By August 1981, the policy was being trialled at two of Her Majesty’s detention centres. One was at Send near Woking. That month, the warden – Jack Hanson – was a guest speaker at the local Townswomen’s Guild to describe the regime. From the wake-up call at 6.30am to the drills, harsh open air work in wind or snow, endless cleaning and scrubbing…in short, a never ending physical and mental labour until bedtime. Having explained this, one member of the guild stood up and asked:

“That’s all very well, Mr Hanson, but where’s the element of punishment?”

Clearly she needed to experience it for herself. But it was indicative of a widespread notion that young offenders were being ‘mollycoddled’ when in fact Short, Sharp, Shock would subsequently be condemned as institutionalised brutality.

A journalist visits a Short Sharp Shock detention centre

One journalist who visited the detention centre at Send to see Short, Sharp, Shock in action – the late Simon Hoggart – thought it was designed to sound “a good deal more ferocious than it really is”. If the young offenders had read The Guardian or The Observer where Hoggart opined ever week, their blood might have boiled at these observations:

“I’m sure that I would detest being sent there for six weeks’ gruelling work, and on my release would attempt to order my affairs so as to avoid ever having to return. That said, Send did not strike me as a cruel or humiliating place. Nobody could possibly like it, but I can see that they might not loathe it.”

Testimonies from those who experienced it for real, as opposed to a journalist’s day out, expressed a markedly different sentiment. Even Hoggart felt obliged to point out that new arrivals slept in individual cubicles “so that they can cry, as nearly all of them do, in private”. After folding their bed to an exacting standard, the young offenders spent forty minutes getting cleaned and dressed. Hoggart’s description is, frankly, a little distasteful:

“Every orifice, every fold in the flesh must be excavated and left gleaming like a guardsman’s webbing. At 7.30 they turn up for breakfast looking like Richard Crompton’s William on a Sunday, wearing ties and with their cuffs neatly folded back. They go on parade at 8.00.”

Did Short Sharp Shock actually work?

Three-quarters of those on the regime were of school age, between 14 and 16 years. Most had a below average reading age. It was claimed that the physical activity was imparting skills and not just digging holes and filling them in again – which occurred on some government youth training schemes in the 1980s.

Those doing the skills imparting were ex-military themselves. Remember that compulsory national service had only ended in 1960 so a big chunk of the British population had gone through service in the armed forces. Older people, including the Home Secretary himself, had fought in World War Two. So there was a prevailing ethos among conservatively minded folk that military life was character forming and good for you.

Two contradictory processes in youth justice ran side by side in the 1980s. Short, Sharp, Shock was the politically more acceptable process to please Tory voters. but actually the number of young people receiving custodial punishments from 1979 to 1989 reduced significantly. Because experts and sharper minds in government knew it didn’t work. Instead, minor offences increasingly resulted in police cautions and drawing in other agencies.

These were also cheaper methods of tackling crime.

Preversely then, despite Short Sharp Shock, the stronger trend was towards a more liberal approach on youth crime in the 1980s, pushed by Whitelaw’s successors: Leon Brittan and Douglas Hurd. But this reversed dramatically in the 1990s. The murder of two-year-old Jamie Bulger by a couple of ten-year-old boys hardened public attitudes, influencing policy up to the present day.

Short, Sharp, Shock was abolished in 1988, regarded as having failed. Since then, it’s become clear that it was a license to physically and even sexually abuse young people. Those who had gone through the experience led shattered lives sinking into addiction, petty crime, and violence. But custodial punishments for young people are still very much a fact of life.

FIND OUT MORE: Deeper analysis of Short, Sharp, Shock

Short Sharp Shock goes to the theatre

In June 1980, a play Short Sharp Shock was staged in Sheffield and then London. It was co-written by Howard Brenton who would go on to achieve national notoriety with another play, The Romans in Britain, that likened the British Army presence in Northern Ireland to the Roman Empire’s invasion of Britannia two thousand years before and included the attempted rape on stage of a naked druid by a Roman centurion. This resulted in an unsuccessful private prosecution by the morality campaigner, Mary Whitehouse.

The play was a general attack on Thatcherism as opposed to focussing on the prisons policy and was originally going to be called Ditch the Bitch. Until the playwrights realised that would alienate feminist opponents of the Conservative government.

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