A Short, Sharp, Shock! Part 3 of 3
When My parents and I returned to court, the appearance was brief.
“Is there a place available?” The judge asked someone.
“Yes there is“, they replied.
“OK, send him down then.”
My next memory is of being driven away in the back of a police car, handcuffed, and looking out of the back window to see my parents waving me off, my Mum crying.
I was driven to a Police Station somewhere and put in a cell. After what seemed many hours later, I was transferred into a van with two blokes in the front and just me in the back. Neither man said a single word to me the whole trip.
The journey seemed to last forever. I recall the engine sounded like it was about to explode as it strained every last bolt screeching along the motorway. The van was at full throttle all the time. I remember hoping we would crash and I would get killed.
Our destination was Kidlington in Oxford. I knew we had arrived when I saw the “HMP Kidlington House” sign. (or it may have been just H.M Kidlington, I’m not sure)
I was taken inside and told to wait in a corridor with some other new arrivals. A guard (AKA screw), came along and told us to strip to our underpants and put our clothes in our assigned box.
Then it was in to see the governor. I was weighed and asked some crap questions that I don’t recall. I remember them making a note of my silly schoolboy home-made tattoos on my arms. Then the Governor then said to me, “do you want us to look after your spectacles?” I thought to myself, why would they offer to do that? Then, realisation, Oh shit, I’m going to die in here! I thought.
I declined the kind offer as I am as blind as a bat without them, everything over a foot from my nose is a blur without them. When I answered “no thanks” I was reminded by the screw behind me, in no uncertain terms, to refer to the governor, and all staff from then on as, “Sir”.
The governor said my sentence is halved to six weeks immediately, but that time can be put back on if I misbehave. It’s a good incentive for sure. I was then given my “kit” and told to stand in line with the other mugs outside the office.
A few minutes later a screw came out and made us run through the corridors of the prison, shouting commands as we bumbled and dropped bits of kit along the way, and still in just our underpants. We looked and felt pathetic, just as was intended I suppose.
We ran past the dining hall (the mess), it was full of prisoners eating, but it was deathly silent, apart from the muted taps of plastic knives and forks on plastic trays, it was weird to see about 50 or so boys being that quiet. I didn’t quite know what to make of it all, but I was most definitely shit-scared.
I was put alone in a holding cell, where I was told to dress in the prison uniform and read the supplied laminated cards that listed the most important rules and regulations of the prison.
I’m recalling this story 41 years later, so obviously, I cannot remember a lot of the fine details, but the basic rules were;
No smoking, No talking, unless spoken to by a screw. Always call staff “Sir“, and always ask permission to do anything you haven’t already been told to do, like going to the toilet for example. If you are standing still, you stood to attention, unless told otherwise. If you were walking you marched.
Later, a “green tie” boy came into my holding cell to make sure that I knew all the rules, and to answer any questions that I had. I stupidly asked him if we got an Easter egg in here for Easter, he couldn’t stop laughing at my childish naivety.
From that memory, I know I started my sentence during March or April sometime.
I will explain the tie system. There were three coloured neck ties you could earn. Everyone started out with a blue tie and if you earned it through effort and good behaviour you got awarded a red tie, and a few extra privileges.
If you were an ass-kissing goody two shoes, you got a green tie, and were trusted with tasks such as the lad in front of me, or working in the kitchen (free food), and the big one, you got to watch TV on Sunday evenings for a couple of hours, Whoopee! Songs Of Fucking Praise.
From my acerbic wit, you will have probably deduced by now that I never graduated past the blue tie!
Note: My memory is a little hazy in places, and it’s possible I have the colours mixed up.
I was eventually found a place in a dormitory of about 20 lads. I was in the first bed next to the entrance door, which also meant I was right next to the screw that sat in an armchair reading a book all night watching over us. If it wasn’t for that guard I’m sure I’d of had at least one bad beating. You’ll see why later.
The whole idea of a detention centre in the 1970’s was to give young criminal men some army-style discipline. It would later be marketed by the Conservative party as a “short, sharp, shock” (hence the title of this memoir) and it certainly was, I can attest to that.
Rather than pore over lots of little incidents, I will take you through a typical day in DC.
I think it was 6AM when we were woken up to a screw shouting obscenities like “stop wanking and get up, you shit-bags!”, or words to that effect. You had to jump out of bed quickly, get dressed and then immediately start to make your “bed-pack”.
This bed-pack had to be nothing less than 100% perfect. Each blanket and sheet had to be folded in a certain way and laid out in a very specific order at the end of your bed. I struggled with it at first as it seemed like total bullshit to me. I even got sent to bed-pack classes for idiots in the evening, I kid you not!
Then it was into the wash-room, and after that straight out into the yard for some marching drill. After an hour or so of that nonsense, we went in for breakfast.
Meal times were the only time we were allowed to talk to each other, but only after the meal, not before. I had already made a couple of enemies, a few lads just didn’t like the look of me, probably because I was a wimp, and I looked like easy prey to a bully.
Luckily for me, it was near impossible to have a fight in this place, unless the screws allowed it, which they wouldn’t. I know I have shown very little respect so far for the screws, but to be fair to them all the guards in Kidlington House were professionals and did the job correctly.
There was no real violence of any kind, even from the screws, but they cleverly made you feel that you were one mistake away from a good kicking, and it was convincing. In reality, all they did was shout and scream a lot at you, just like in the army.
On the other side of the coin, I have read disturbing reports of sexual abuse and terrible violence at other detention centres around the country at that time.
I only realised after researching this memoir just how lucky I was being sent to Kidlington House, rather than almost any other DC.
Obviously I can only comment with authority on the exact time that I was in Kidlington House. What happened before or after that time may well have been different.
This disturbing video will give you some idea on just how very lucky I was.
After breakfast, some prisoners would go out to work on projects for the morning, digging holes, gardening, cutting trees, cleaning etc.
While others went to class to continue their education. I think that everyone did half a day of each, well I did anyway, but maybe that was because I was only 15 and still a schoolboy.
In between lunch and tea we had circuit training in the gym every day, football or cross country running (well, running around the football pitch a lot!).
In the evening there were classes, you had to take something or work (cleaning usually), so I took an engineering class, I was totally lost in there!
The work wasn’t too bad, I hated polishing the floors, I remember we were given a pink rubber knee pad to kneel on, ah that was nice of them.
The worst job for me by far though was in the workshop, which I got thrown into for a few weeks, it was horrible. The only saving grace was that they had the radio on Radio 1 all day, which was regarded as quite a bonus.
I still recall hearing Music by John Miles on that radio. That got to number 3 in the charts in 1976 which confirms that I was 15 years old, my birthday is at the end of October.
I have just found out that the album “Music” was taken from was released in March 1976, so I can confirm that I was in Kidlington House during March 1976, aged 15.
Whenever I hear that track I remember all the burns on my hands from that damn workshop. We had to slide lengths of thin rubber onto metal strips, the fit had to be tight, and you had to push really hard to get this thin rubber sheath thing over the metal strip, which was in a vice.
The metal had some sort of oil on it to help, and we had a thin rag to help push the rubber on, but most of the time you just burnt the palms of your hand from the friction and you had to do a certain amount of strips an hour or a major bollocking would ensue.
At 9pm, it was bedtime, and by then everyone was exhausted anyway, and that was a typical day.
On Sunday afternoons at 5pm, we had two hours of “entertainment” where we could talk, play chess, draughts, and stuff like that, all under strict observation of course.
I had two visits from my Mum, it was a long and expensive journey for her. It was upsetting to see her worrying about me.
For some reason she asked me if I was going to the toilet alright, maybe I said that I had stomach pains or something to her? I revealed that I had not had a shit since I had been there, about two weeks I think, she asked why and I told her about how all the toilet stalls had no doors on them and everyone could see you taking a dump, and I wasn’t keen!
She scared the life out of me by saying she was going to see the governor about it, I begged her not to, I said I would take a shit for her. 🙂
I did find out how to have a semi-private dump in the end though. I’d wait until the early hours of the morning and ask the screw on the door If I could “fall out please sir?” and he’d say “go on then” and I’d toddle off to the loo for a nice private dump.
There was one drawback though, as the whole place was in total silence every fart, plop and splash echoed down the corridors for all to hear. It was the best I was going to get though.
I only two “bad” incidents happen to me in the six weeks that was there.
The first was the P.E instructor, who had already shouted at me for my P.E kit not being folded correctly in my locker. The second time he tried to shove my head in the locker whilst shouting like a mad bitch, it worked I suppose as I never got told off for that again.
The second incident was similar, but a lot worse. Every Sunday morning we had Governor’s inspection. Our bed space, locker, bed-pack, comb, toothbrush etc. all had to be in the perfect positions and totally clean.
Your uniform had to be exemplary as well of course, boots and shoes shiny etc. and most important of all was dust, the governor hated dust! Well, so did I. I think I’m allergic to it. If I touch that shit it always makes my skin go dry and mouth taste funny almost instantly, so I prefer to leave it well alone, I’m still the same today.
Anyway, my dusting was just a quick wipe around. Big mistake. I got “the look” from the governor and he said to the screw with him, “filthy”. Everyone else, except me, passed.
After the governor had left, the screw came back to say no “entertainment” for us tonight, because of me. We had to re-clean the whole dorm, instead of playing chess and exciting stuff like that.
As you can imagine I was not very popular in that dorm after that, and I definitely would have got a kicking if we hadn’t been supervised 24\7.
After a month I was put in my own cell, which I much preferred. I think everyone got their own cell in their last fortnight, if there was one available, the new boys coming in took your place in the dorms.
By the time my release date arrived I had mastered all that they required of me, and was fairly happy to be honest. Obviously, I was excited and keen to get home but I felt integrated there already. I knew exactly what had to be done, and how to do it. Sport and circuit training was easy as well now that I was as fit as a fiddle. I had been disciplined by the system. Good job your majesty, and all in six weeks!
On my day of release I was given a train pass and told where the train station was and not to hang about in the town, but to get the first train home. I guess they didn’t want criminals hanging around their nice little Oxfordshire village!
On the train, I bought a couple of Mars bars and scoffed them down like an idiot. I hadn’t had hardly any sugar in six weeks, then I do that, I felt sick as a dog.
When I got home all I can remember is my Mum making me a cup of tea with three sugars in it, and again I nearly puked! I took one sugar from then on, and I still do to this day.
I have to say in all honesty, I felt fantastic after coming home. I had paid my debt to society, I had learnt a bit of discipline and I was as fit as a fiddle. I determined not to go back again, and I did stay out of trouble for about two years after that.
As advertised, it certainly was a short, sharp, shock!
HM Kidlington House (originally called Campsfield House) was the very first Detention Centre of the Short, Sharp, Shock variety, and opened in 1952 as an experiment. It held 60 boys of age 14 to 17 years old. It was a cheaper version of the Approved school system.
Kidlington House is now called Campsfield House again, and is used as an immigration centre.
I recently found this video clip, also called Short, Sharp, Shock! that shows inside HM Haslar Detention Centre during the early 1980’s.
This was the Margaret Thatcher\Willie Whitelaw’s version of DC, but the uniforms and the regime were the same as in my time, about four years earlier. Thankfully they had upped the minimum age to 17 years old by then.
Read this shocking news report from The Independent newspaper from 2018 about how over 400 men have come forward and told of shocking sexual and physical abuse in Detention Centres in the 1970s and 80s.
Short, Sharp, Shock! is dedicated to my Mother who died in 2015.
She was far from perfect, same as anyone, but she was my Ma and I miss her
greatly. Since the 1970’s she had a pretty miserable life and said she was
glad to go in the end. Rest in peace Mum. x
Short, Sharp, Shock! is © Steve Bale 2016-2020 and cannot be reproduced in part or
in full without express written permission from the author.
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