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12 June 2014
Talking Point: Getting the monkey off their back

Talking Point: Getting the monkey off their back

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland published findings of a follow-up inspection of Polmont Young Offenders Institution yesterday. A cursory glance at the morning’s newspapers suggested it did not attract as much fanfare as the report that preceded it.

It’s going on two years since Polmont was “massacred” – the description one staff member used in conversation with Holyrood earlier this year – by HMIPS. Seventy-four recommendations were made by the then Chief Inspector of Prisons, Brigadier Hugh Monro, with his line that “too often inspectors found evidence of young offenders still in their beds even in the afternoon” pounced on by the media.

Current governor Sue Brookes had barely got her feet under the table having moved from Cornton Vale only a few weeks before inspectors came knocking. Members of staff were “devastated” by the inspection report, she told me earlier this year. Against this backdrop, yesterday’s report carried a great deal of significance, irrespective of the number of column inches it commanded.

The overriding sense is that Polmont, which houses men aged between 16 and 21 years of age, has made clear strides forward. Of the 74 recommendations made in January of last year, 51 have been achieved, 18 partially achieved, and five not yet achieved. Development of a family help hub is at an advanced stage, a parenting unit is up and running, and family involvement has been reintroduced to the induction process, all of which inspectors are pleased with.

“The most significant thing about Polmont is the strategic direction it is going in, which is about creating a learning environment for the young people there,” chief inspector of prisons, David Strang, told Holyrood. “In my mind, it's a significant opportunity in these young people’s lives where clearly things have gone wrong and you want to engage constructively with them so that the choices they make when they leave are different from the ones that got them in there in the first place.”

Personal officers, who are allocated a number of young men to work with, hold “considerable potential” in this regard, the HMIPS follow-up report says.

Of course, the establishment still has some way to go. “There are still some, what I would say, quite basic things that they need to sort out,” said Strang. Time spent in the open air by the bulk of young offenders remains “particularly poor”, notes the report. Disruption to the early morning regime or higher numbers than usual often cut into the period of time made available.

Purposeful activity on offer has improved, particularly among those aged 16 and 17 as a result of a drop in numbers. However, many young offenders continue to be locked in their cells for long periods of time during the day, in the evenings and weekends.

Work to ensure all activity spaces in the workshops are utilised has progressed thanks to a new booking system – average uptake was up from 42 per cent to 73 per cent in the first two months of this year – though “room for improvement” remains, according to HMIPS.

“They've got good facilities and I just think they have got potential for using them much more productively and then that would benefit the young men there,” added Strang.

Having visited the establishment a week before Strang’s team turned up back in March, it was clear that staff wanted to be get the follow-up inspection out of the way, be given a clean bill of health, and left to get on with the job in hand.

The fact Polmont failed to gain any attention whatsoever in the papers this week suggests that the monkey may well be off their back.

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