Con-sensus: education still matters on the inside

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Many boys in Polmont Young Offenders Institution could still be at school. Prison offers perhaps the final chance of an education.

It could almost be the art department in any modern secondary school. Paintings adorn the wide corridor and sculptures of giant papier-mache letters hang from the ceiling. But there are bars at the corridor's far end, razor wire visible beyond a classroom window - and the affable 17- year-old who tells me about his drawings is doing 12 years for murder.

I have to leave my mobile phone at reception when I arrive at HM Young Offenders Institution Polmont, and put my bag through an airport-style scanner. I'm led through a maze of featureless stairwells and corridors. We walk along a 200-yard passageway with steel sheets on either side and overhead. The draught hitting my ankles is a reminder that we are between buildings, not in one.

"If your (sic) living a life of hell, don't be afraid to tell," reads a homemade poster for an anti-bullying phoneline. It is hardly ever called, I'm told, since admitting frailty is anathema for west of Scotland young men.

Inside the doorway to "Activities 2" block, we enter a room where a couple of lonely posters about Roy Lichtenstein and Marc Chagall are stuck up on the wall next to a paint-splattered ceramic sink. Eight teenage boys and a young woman teacher stand or sit around a central agglomeration of desks, the only sound the soft scratching of pencils on paper.

I speak to Blair, a solidly-built 17-year-old working on a tattoo-style design of a golden phoenix. He has always liked drawing and enjoys his weekly art class: "We get to draw whatever we want - nobody tells us what to do. I did do art at school but I got kicked out. You can express yourself here. You don't get judged by anybody."

Blair, who speaks in a soft voice and has a permanent half-smile, admits it was his own fault he never got an education, with one qualification: "When you're outside, the teachers only talk to the good ones".

Staff tell me I can ask the boys - "prisoners" or "YOs", as they call them - about why they are here, but warn me that many visitors prefer not to know the "gory details" and that the boys are often in denial.

Blair looks apologetic when I ask about his crime, as if the details will spoil our friendly chat. He is not far into a 12-year stretch for murder, he tells me. The victim was someone he had only met once or twice but got into an argument with.

Blair used to be "out of control", his anger constantly threatening to simmer over. Each day would start at a shop, stocking up on booze. He copes better with life in Polmont, he says, because "it's not my responsibility to do everything for myself. I've calmed down a lot, because of my surroundings".

Education is a pastime for Blair, not a passport to a better life - not yet, anyway. He has little idea of what to do after prison: "I've got a lot of time to think about it."

The other boys are still working hard. Raza, 17, furrows his brow while writing his name in bold, graffiti-style block letters. He has a conditional place to study pharmacy at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen - conditional on the right exam results and on getting out of Polmont in time.

He is serving three years for a violent crime. The back-up course for Raza - who has been studying here for Highers in chemistry, maths, biology and Urdu - is biomedical sciences at Strathclyde University. Wherever he ends up, he will wear an electronic tag when he matriculates.

The art class finishes and all the boys, in standard-issue red jumper and blue jeans, are body-searched while I look over the art on display. There are faithful reproductions of Winnie the Pooh and Tweety Pie, but learning skills and employability manager Jim Chalmers steers me towards "real art".

The boys are encouraged to explore their feelings and their lives through art: a crocodile represents predators, a wolf the survival instinct. Giant green three-dimensional letters, suspended from the ceiling, spell out "hidden". Underneath is a poem by "James":

A person within a person

I feel lost within myself

Always running

Trying to find myself

Trying to break free

There is a rich education to be gleaned from Polmont, for those who choose it. The list of past projects, often benefiting from a share of pound;300,000 the Scottish Arts Council gave to a group of five prisons, is impressive: singing with the National Youth Choir; making a film about knife crime (many prisoners left their victims permanently scarred); playing in a support band when Glasvegas did a gig in the prison; translating Macbeth into Glaswegian; finishing runners-up with an anti-sectarianism message in the Scottish Qualifications Authority's Show Racism the Red Card awards.

"We're trying to develop the whole person," says activities unit manager Alan Hamilton, a former primary teacher who advised Iraqi authorities on how to run prisons when he was in the Territorial Army.

"They're learning as they're doing," says Mr Chalmers, who is employed by Motherwell College, which is responsible for education in Polmont.

He blames the boys' west of Scotland macho attitude for dismissing education as something for the hoity-toity and effete. Most of them were "totally disengaged from school", so removing the "stigma of the classroom" is crucial.

"We don't like to use that word (education) because it's had a negative effect on life," he says. "That's why I'm not called an education manager."

More standard educational fare is on offer. Popular subjects are history (especially Scottish) and Spanish (perhaps because it improves prospects in the "Costa del Crime", staff joke) and opportunities will be sought for prisoners in any area that interests them, through distance learning if necessary.

Curricular reform holds no fear in Polmont. "To be honest, we've been ahead of Curriculum for Excellence," says Mr Hamilton.

He cites learning that reaches beyond its traditional boundaries. A basic first aid course involves "resuscitating" an ethnic-minority doll, a subtle challenge to common prejudices. Learning is tailored to individual needs: in a class of eight - the maximum number - boys may be working on an IT project with a computer, another doing a communications essay, another exploring social science.

But there is an inevitable tension between the flexibility of learning vaunted by CfE and the inherent rigidity of prison. There is no access to the internet. Certain boys cannot be in the same class because of gang rivalries. When Glasvegas chanced their arm and asked if their support band could come on tour, there was only ever going to be one answer.

Staff cannot blithely tell the boys to follow their dreams. "We have to manage expectations, try to be realistic," says Mr Chalmers. The boy on a seven-year sentence who wanted to be a social worker has to put aside that ambition until his conviction disappears from his criminal record, many years from now. The aspirations of others are similarly thwarted: those with several car-crime offences who want to work with cars, or who stole someone's identity and seek a job involving financial trust.

Since last November, 16 and 17-year-old offenders (about a fifth of the 770-strong population) have been placed separately in the new Blair House, following United Nations and European regulations that define under-18s as children. Cigarettes are banned here, so the standard currency is Lynx and other teenage-friendly toiletries, not tobacco.

It is a place where boys can flourish away from the intimidating presence and bad habits of older prisoners who might keep them from classes, says Vince Fletcher, first-line manager in Blair House.

Staff are relaxed about The TESS visit, perhaps because they get incessant requests from politicians eager to see inside Polmont. Interviews take place unsupervised and we can choose who we want to talk to and photograph.

Scott, 18, could be out in two months. He wants to be a slater and plasterer and regrets not doing more at school, where he was "a wee bit of an eejit, trying to act smart to impress my pals". He enjoys working with staff who "aren't like teachers - teachers tell you what to do, they don't ask".

Peter, 17, will be out in five months. He used to be in care and "never did anything - I just ran away all the time". He has a pragmatic approach to education: "Because there's nothing else to do, you might as well try something - it gets me out of my room."

Would-be mechanic Jae, 17, has belatedly realised the joy of "using your brain" and making sense of maths. If he could travel back in time, he would give himself a slap. "I didn't do anything at school. I've made up for it in here." But Jae is out in 12 days. Those who are here for longer are more likely to "sit and hibernate", he says.

The "lifers" are hard to reach, confirms Mr Hamilton, because they think they have nothing to lose. But after about a year, "the penny drops": the vast majority become "model prisoners" and more receptive to education.

Kevin, 18, and Nicky, 17, are both in for attempted murder. They are uninspired by posters outside the spartan IT room where we speak, advertising creative writing classes and a book group.

"I don't see the point of education if you're on the pass," says Nicky. The "pass" means duties such as serving breakfast and mopping floors for a small wage.

Kevin claims he had no idea he could take exams in Polmont, and Nicky did not like a World Cup art project because it was the sort of thing he had already done at school and there were no sharpeners or normal pencils to draw outlines, only coloured ones.

Both would rather be among the older prisoners who, Nicky believes, "get more responsibility and treated better"; Blair House is a "jail within a jail", he says. Nicky has done a year of eight years and dismisses the usefulness of health and safety and food hygiene certificates as they will expire before his release.

In time, perhaps Nicky will be infected with the enthusiasm gathering behind the latest project to give Polmont its own radio station, with advertising, music and programmes on issues such as bullying and suicide. Suggested names include Bars `n' Keys FM and Con Air.

When the day of release draws near, prisoners often panic that they have nothing to put on a CV. Mr Chalmers had to point out to one that being in a warm-up act for Glasvegas might impress employers as much as a string of qualifications. Polmont's approach, he stresses, is quite different from schools' fixation with exam results. "We're creating a journey of learning. It may be that schools should be coming here to see what's happening."

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