Lisnevin Training School – Millisle Borstal

Lisnevin Training School – Millisle Borstal

Millisle is a village located on the Ards peninsula in County Down, Northern Ireland. It has miles upon miles of coastline, and situated alongside this coast is the controversial Lisnevin Training School.

Lisnevin Training School was a secure borstal which catered for adolescent boys who had been remanded by the courts and others who had been referred by opening training schools as being in need of more secure accommodation.

It was first opened in October of 1973, but it was at the premises formerly known as “Kiltonga House” on the outskirts of Newtownards. Before it even opened, it was met by criticism from local people who opposed to having such an establishment in their community. It opened in Newtownards before being moved to Bangor, around five miles away.

The secure unit accommodated up to 40 boys, aged between 10-years-old and 17-years-old. The majority had histories of absconding from various opening training schools as well as presenting violent or disturbed behaviour. A number of them remanded for assessment were charged with secluded or terrorist offences relating to the Troubles. Some had been charged with other crimes, such as burglary and criminal damage, while others were simply considered “out of control.”

In 1981, Lisnevin Training School moved from Bangor to Millisle, County Down. It covered 43 acres of land, overlooking the Irish Sea. The premise had been designed as a secure borstal located behind the open borstal, Woburn House. The borstal was a medium to long term facility, with boys living in the unit for between nine months to three years. There was a median of around 15 months.

It consisted of a main two storey building that was enclosed by a seven metre-high perimeter fence. There was a secure entrance hall which remained staffed between 7AM and 10PM. Access from the entrance hall to other parts of the building was then secured by electronically controlled doors.

On the ground floor, there were two wings of sleeping accommodations, called Drumfad and Woburn, which were occupied by the Remand Unit. There were two common rooms, classrooms, a snack kitchen, and other offices. Running to the rear, there was a medical block, including a dentist,  and punishment block. The ground floor additionally had a laundry room and dining room. To the rear of the building there was a gymnasium and games area.

On the first floor, there was an additional two wings of sleeping accommodations, known as Kiltonga and Copeland, which were occupied by the Special Unit. The first floor also comprised of office space, a living room, a TV room and classroom accommodations. Outside, there was a full-sized football pitch.

There was additionally a small church for the use of all denominations. This was located behind the security fencing, which meant that there was no need for juveniles to leave the site for religious observance.

Mr. Bill Lockhart provided psychological services in the borstal. He referred to the move to Millisle as “a disaster” because the building was designed as a category C prison, and was unsuitable for housing children. The philosophy of juvenile detention facilities are typically based upon child care considerations. Lisnevin Training School did not fit with this philosophy.

Since the borstal was located on the outskirts of a small village, it meant that public transport was extremely limited. It was difficult for families to visit their sons via public transport. The isolated location also led to a reduction in the number of home visits made by staff.  

Lisnevin Training School was marred by abuse, and corporal punishment was very much permitted if not even encouraged. Physical violence from the boys would be reprimanded by caning administered with a bamboo cane. A number of boys at the borstal made allegations that staff had assaulted them and that they had used illegal holds during restraint. In addition to allegations of physical abuse, there were allegations of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect and unacceptable practices.

One juvenile stated that staff would shout at them, slap them on the ears and hit them “over the head with their knuckles.” He gave one example of an officer hitting him on the head with his knuckles as punishment for simply looking down a corridor. According to another juvenile, he was beaten by three separate members of staff, and had been beaten in the showers, the living room and in his cell. According to the staff, they had been given permission to use “as much force as necessary” to control certain juveniles’ behaviour.

There were other juveniles in the borstal that recollected how during restraints, officers had pressed pressure points on their body that led to paralysing effect and it took a while for feeling to return to the body. Another method that staff used to deal with juveniles was to put them in isolation; there were six isolation rooms located. Sometimes when being led to isolation, the juveniles would be beat with fists and canes. According to another juvenile, he had barricaded himself in his cell out of fear that the staff would beat him. Sometimes, boys were forced to stay in isolation for days at a time.

One juvenile recalled his intake:

The next morning I was given black boots, a black jacket made of cloth and trousers. I had my hair shaved. An officer told me that I didn’t have a mother or a father and that the officers in charge were my parents now. He then said that I was only a number. My number was 479 and he told me that they had me for three years. He then slapped me. I had just turned sixteen years of age.

Another young boy recollected:

It was extremely regimented in Borstal and there were rules for everything. If I did not follow the rules to the letter then I would be beaten by staff. The prison officers were tough and were always looking for faults in what I was doing or the state of my cell. If there was a problem then I either was beaten or locked up for the day.

The borstal was also over-populated and under-staffed at times. This led to a contentious environment, and destruction, violence and even riots were the norm. On 23 December, 1986, a group of juveniles set fire to their mattresses and six escaped. It was reported that staff had not been given formal training to handle such an incident. Their response was simply to violently restrain trouble makers.

In addition to the conflict between staff and juveniles, there was constant conflict between the juveniles. A lot of boys that had been sent to Lisnevin Training School reported that they had been bullied and intimidated by their peers. They reported that staff did nothing to intervene and protect them. The tense atmosphere led to a lot of self-harm amongst the juveniles.

Lisnevin was the only training school in Northern Ireland for both Protestant and Catholic boys; Rathgael in Bangor was for Protestant boys; St. Joseph’s in Middletown was for Catholic girls; and St. Patrick’s in Belfast was for Catholic boys.

Therefore, it isn’t much of a surprise that sectarian abuse was rampant inside the non-denominational borstal. There was one boy at the borstal that had the initials of a paramilitary organization tattooed on his hand. This led to both staff and other juveniles being verbally and even physically abusive towards him; there was a culture of abuse within the borstal. He recalled how one staff member said that he would like to cut off his fingers. He took this as a reference to getting rid of the tattoo.

Another boy complained of the same. He referred to one specific member of staff that came to work wearing Rangers football tops. He noted that this staff member told him and other juveniles not to play shots called “crosses” during snooker games. He thought that this “was referring to our Catholic identity.”

One boy at the school commented that he “was called sectarian names by staff on many occasions” while another recollected he was subjected to “sectarian abuse from other residents and from staff.” Another one said: “Because we were Catholic we were seriously under the heel.” Another boy recollected that a member of staff ordered him “to go into the Catholic boys’ room while they were out and rip up their books. I didn’t want to do that, but I didn’t dare say no to him.”

According to another boy who was at Lisnevin Training School, he was humiliated when he was forced to wear pyjamas 24/7. A member of staff told him that he needed to earn the right to wear his ordinary clothes.

The juveniles inside the borstal slept in single cells. These cells had only two pieces of furniture: a cuboid which could be used as a chair or a table and then a reinforced mattress which rested on the floor without a frame. There were no cupboards and the juveniles placed their clothing on the corridor outside their cell each night. According to staff, the reason there was no furniture in the cells was because there was a fear that it could be damaged.

The juveniles were completely deprived of any normal home comforts. A number of the juveniles took to drawing on their cell walls, many of which included references to paramilitary activities. In the winter, the cells were bordering on freezing. One juvenile later said that he took to sleeping on the floor beside the radiator pipes, and on one occasion, he burnt his arm.

Lisnevin Training School had a fully equipped medical room and there were three nurses employed. There was typically one nurse on duty between 9AM and 9PM. There was also a dentist office and a laundry room. The dentist visited the borstal once a week.

One juvenile recalled how he had been beaten on one occasion, and when he saw the nurse, she looked at him, laughed and then walked out of the room. She commented to other staff that “he would live.” He recollected: “I could not believe someone who was supposed to help me could be so callous.”

Absconding from Lisnevin Training School was quite a common occurrence. Governor Duncan McLaughlan described the typical process following an escape at the borstal:

“When a young person absconded, staff searched the immediate area of the Borstal; if this was unsuccessful, the police were notified and they took over. A returned absconder would be interviewed by an assistant governor. An absconder would face formal disciplinary proceedings involving adjudication by the Visiting Committee. This Committee would decide whether or not a young person was guilty of an offence and if guilty, the sanction which should apply. Such sanctions could have included corporal punishment or loss of grade or privileges. Absconding episodes were recorded in the Governor’s Journal.”

In 1994, the Guardian reported that Lisnevin Training School had a reconviction rate of over 85% within the first two years of release. In their report, they criticized the Home Secretary’s £100 million plan to set up “mini-prisons” for 12 to 15-year-olds. The new secure training centres were going to be modelled on Lisnevin Training School.

There had been calls for such “mini-prisons” after the gruesome murder of 2-year-old James Bulger, who had been killed by two 10-year-old boys. These calls were further enhanced with highly publicised incidents of juveniles throughout the United Kingdom joy riding and committing various public order offences. The two events combined portrayed a very frightening picture of young and violent youths “out of control.”

A study would be commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office to take an in-depth look at the juveniles held in the Lisnevin Training School. It found that almost all of the juveniles released from the borstal turned into adult criminals. Nearly a quarter would go on to commit serious violent and sexual crimes. It further found that juveniles sent to Lisnevin Training School were much more likely to commit serious crimes upon their release than those who were dealt with in other ways.

This study had tracked 592 former inmates of the borstal, and found that upon three years after their release, 86% of them had reoffended, and then after those three years, that increased to a startling 95%. These figures were then compared to juveniles who had committed crimes but not been incarcerated at the borstal. Those figures showed that there was a reoffend rate at 71% upon three years and then 83% after three years.

The figures were extremely disturbing and showed the negative impact of the institution on the predisposition of offenders to serious offenders. They found that while only 6% of the juveniles incarcerated in Lisnevin Training School had committed violent crimes before they were sent there. However, 20% of these juveniles committed violent crimes after their incarceration.

As these figures were released, Mary Honeyball, general secretary of the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, said that she wasn’t surprised; she had visited Lisnevin Training School two months before these figures were released and she was horrified by what she found. She described the condition of borstal “bleak beyond belief.” Juveniles were sleeping in cells with bars on the windows and doors and on mattresses on the floor.

By 1997, it was reported that the reoffend rate was a shocking 100%.

It had become apparent that Lisnevin Training School was a complete and utter failure. More often than not, boys who were sent to Lisnevin Training School were damaged and very vulnerable. They had a history of disrupted and chaotic lifestyles, poor relationships with their parents or caretakers, disproportionate experiences of loss, poor school histories, alcohol and drug misuse and also psychological problems.

Such an environment as Lisnevin Training School was dangerous for such juveniles, and the rate of self-harm and bullying was extremely high within the walls of the borstal. The reoffend rate showed that children emerged from Lisnevin Training School more lost and out of control than when they had arrived.

An independent inspection by researchers at Queen’s University came to the conclusion that boys at Lisnevin Training School “came in as criminals with low self-esteem and went out as criminals with high self-esteem.”

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission expressed their concern at the findings of the reports. Chief Commissioner Prof Brice Dickson said: “If the contents of this report are borne out, it gives rise to real concern that there have been breaches of human rights at Lisnevin.”

In 1997, one of the whistle-blowers, Billy Schumacher, was accused of threatening to torch Lisnevin. Schumacher had come forward with stories of abuse, and had accused the authorities of covering up the abuse. One juvenile was paid £1,250 in a settlement following an incident. Schumacher had been accused of threatening to kill two former colleagues, and to burn Linevin Training School down. Upon leaving Lisnevin, Schumacher was plagued by horrific memories of the things he had witnessed and suffered a breakdown.  A jury found him not-guilty on all counts.

In an attempt to claw back some semblance of a reputation, Lisnevin Training School underwent a renovation. This included concrete beds built into the floor of the cells with a mattress on top as opposed to mattresses on the floor. There was also a new indoor exercise yard which included a basketball court, pool tables, and exercise equipment.

This refurbishment had come when the borstal was taken over by the new Youth Justice Agency. Before then, it had been run by the Juvenile Justice Board. In taking over the borstal, they said that the aim of the Agency was to prevent offending by the children in Northern Ireland, as well as offering a range of services in the community as well as in custody.

In 2000, however, it was announced that Lisnevin Training School was being closed. A new juvenile detention centre was being constructed in Rathgael in Bangor, around a 20 minute drive away. The new centre was described as a “state-of-the-art custody centre where offenders will eventually be housed in small units with access to educational and recreational facilities.”

By November of 2003, all of the juveniles at Lisnevin Training School were transferred to the new detention centre.

Lisnevin Training School subsequently became a new site for training for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Beforehand, the Police training school was based at Garnerville in east Belfast, on the site of the former Windsor Hotel. The cells remained, but they added a dog training area outside. It remained a training facility until 2016, when it closed due to financial pressures. The Prison Service College moved to Hydebank Wood College.

The site was put up for sale and it was sold £1.75 million in 2018. The former staff houses, which are located beside Woburn House and in front of Lisnevin Training School, have since been transformed into turn-key homes and sold. Both Lisnevin Training School and Woburn House still stand, albeit in a derelict state.

Lisnevin Drone photo:

  1. Administration Building
  2. Entrance to Lisnevin
  3. Main building
  4. Gymnasium
  5. Church
  6. Workshops & skills training
  7. Water and heating room

2 comments on “Lisnevin Training School – Millisle Borstal

  1. R hull

    There’s a bit of a mix up here borstal was borstal til it was abolished in 1980

    1. Hi R Hull,

      We’re aware that the term “borstal” was outdated in the 1980’s in favour of “Youth Custody Centres” but this site is still known locally as “The Millisle Borstal”

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