Scum - Roy Minton

Cerisaye's Review


This is the novelisation of a play about incarcerated young offenders commissioned by the BBC.  When transmission was banned it became a film, infamous for violence, sadism, racism and sex.  Borstals featured in the story were replaced with more humane alternatives in the 80s.

It’s not an easy read, so don’t pick up for entertainment. The novel is a searing indictment of the so-called short, sharp shock regime of treating youthful criminals, favoured by the far Right.  It depicts with unflinching honesty a sadistic regime that made no attempt to rehabilitate or educate youths consigned to its care.  Screws (guards) come from adult penal institutions with no training in the treatment of boys they call Scum, known as trainees rather than prisoners.  No help or counselling is offered boys often seriously disturbed and/or disadvantaged by family background.  Inevitably with fragile youths, some as young as 14, suicide becomes a form of escape.  The only woman in the story is matron, unmarried and childless, hopelessly out of her depth, lacking tenderness or caring, just like the male Screws.  The Governor is distant and useless, a man of God without Christian compassion.

The book introduces characters whose experiences are far removed from cheery prison sitcom, “Porridge”. The story begins with Davis, who runs from an open borstal, seizing a moment of opportunity reminiscent of POW escapades.  A Screw tells him he’ll regret his mad dash for freedom.  He’s right.  Carlin accompanies Davis as a new recruit to a closed borstal.  His story is about power, determination to rule the roost through bloody violence, playing the game to win after he’s brutally shown the rules.  The authorities actively encourage struggles for dominance, to control trainees.  Archer is an intelligent boy who reads Dostoevsky, subverting a system that would have his spirit as well as his body. He discourses on the futility of punishment, representing the voice of reason in a vision of Hell where boys and Screws are equally stripped of human dignity.

I longed for the boys to comfort each other.  Sadly, survival depends on suppression of feelings that’d make them vulnerable. One boy strikes up a relationship exchanging favours for security, a glimmer of mutual pleasure, but there’s little sex, and a single mention of masturbation.  In an enclosed environment of adolescent males where you can smell testosterone that appears perverse, given graphic violence freely filling the book.  There’s good reason.  Sex features sparingly to intensify the shock value of one scene where a boy is violently raped, left hurt and bleeding on the floor. I was initially upset, then angry, at the callousness of staff in the face of his helpless despair. 

Many characters are openly racist, but such attitudes were common in an era of resurgent fascism, countered by the Anti-Nazi League.  A PE instructor gets the boys to play Murder Ball, teams divided, black vs. white.  Screws instinctively take the side of white boys, the only instance where common feeling is displayed.

This is an unrelentingly bleak book offering no Shawshank Redemption.  It doesn’t apologise for youths rightly incarcerated, but no one can come away from it unconvinced that such barbaric treatment only makes things worse, producing hardened criminals.  If the boys are violent the Screws are worse. There are moments of humour but it’s a harrowing experience, nonetheless I recommend this novel.  You will never forget it.