See B. Behan, Borstal Boy (1958); R. Hood, Borstal Re-Assessed (1965).
The Gladstone Committee (1895) proposed the concept, wishing to separate youths from older convicts in adult prisons. It was the task of Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise (1857-1935), a prison commissioner, to introduce the system, and the first such institution was established at Borstal Prison in a village called Borstal, near Rochester in north Kent, England in 1902. The system was developed on a national basis and formalised in the Prevention of Crime Act 1908.
The regime in these institutions was designed to be "educational rather than punitive", but it was highly regulated, with a focus on routine, discipline and authority. However, contrary to popular myth, this discipline was not achieved by corporal punishment. Except in Northern Ireland, the only corporal punishment officially available in Borstal was the birch for mutiny or assaulting an officer, and this could be imposed only by the visiting magistrates, subject in each case to the personal approval of the Home Secretary, just as in adult prisons. Only male inmates over 18 might be so punished. This power was very rarely used -- there were only 7 birching cases in borstals in the 10 years to 1936. The birching was delivered to the inmate's bare buttocks - privately, not in front of other inmates - with a maximum of 24 strokes. In practice, most of these birchings were administered at the special Borstal Wing of Wandsworth Prison in London, which was reserved for youths who had "failed to make satisfactory progress after release on licence from another Institution and have been recalled, by revocation of their licence, to undergo a further period of discipline". This birching power was available only in England and Wales (not in Scottish borstals). Caning as a more day-to-day punishment was used in the single borstal in Northern Ireland but was not authorised in England, Scotland or Wales. Confusion on this matter arises perhaps because in Approved Schools, a quite different kind of youth institution based more on the open "boarding school" model, caning was a frequent official punishment for boys (maximum age 19). Borstal institutions were designed to offer education, regular work and discipline, though one commentator has claimed that "more often than not they were breeding grounds for bullies and psychopaths. Some uncorroborated anecdotal evidence exists of unofficial brutality, both by staff towards the inmates and between inmates -- though possibly no more than is the case for the prison system as a whole.
The Criminal Justice Act 1982 abolished the borstal system in the UK, introducing youth custody centres instead.
A similar system under the name "borstal" had also been introduced in several other states of the British Empire and Commonwealth, including Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland the Criminal Justice Act, 1960 (Section 12) removed the term from usage. This was part of a policy to broaden the system from usage as reform and training institutions to a place of detention for youths between 17 and 21 for any sentence which carried a prison term.