Mental Illness and Juvenile Prisoners, 1850–2000

Fiachra Byrne

This project strand is a comparative study of the history of the mental health of juvenile prisoners in England and Ireland, 1850-2000. The mental health status of juvenile prisoners is a question of contemporary concern. This study addresses when this population was first substantially constructed in terms of psychiatric impairment, and the impact that this has had on regimes of custodial care.

The project examines the impact of reformist ideals, particularly discourses on the psychology and morality of the child offender, in England and Ireland from the mid-nineteenth century. It will examine how certain juvenile offender behaviours – suicide, self-harm, food-refusal, absconding, violence, mutiny and disobedience – were categorized and defined as pathological, moral or disciplinary issues. Using a case-study approach from various institutional contexts – the prison, the reformatory and the industrial school – it focuses specifically on the management of the ‘disturbed’ child who exhibited a pathological pattern of behaviour in these institutional settings.

It will also examine the increasing pathologisation of the young offender in England from the late nineteenth-century as they were framed, at least discursively, within the concept of mental deficiency. Of note is the divergence of Ireland, where the concept of mental deficiency never developed a similar purchase or legislative and institutional manifestation for youth offender or other populations.

In addition, the project looks at the gradual development of psychiatric services and for young offenders in approved schools, remand homes, detention centres and borstals in England in the post-war period. This project addresses the question of whether such changes were driven by government and state officials or by the individual institutions themselves. Was change top-down and sudden, or ad hoc, organic and gradual? The study also accounts for the seemingly later development of psychiatric and psychological approaches to juvenile offenders in institutional settings in Ireland, charting their modes of eventual transmission through religious and lay figures and organisations.

Image: MSS 16A/7/23/1, Howard League Papers. Photograph courtesy of Modern Record Centre, University of Warwick



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s