Unlocking a brighter future for prisoners

Once criticised for its dearth of useful training, Polmont Young Offenders Institution now provides inmates with one-to-one help and skills for life. ?Julia Horton reports on an exciting new regime

Julia Horton

It is difficult to understand what anyone could learn from spending their time packing tea bags and sugar into boxes, aside from how to cope with monotony. Yet until very recently, Scotland's only dedicated young offenders' institution ran two regular workshops where 30 inmates did just that.

Those who think prison should be solely punitive may view this as entirely suitable. However, another school of thought believes that everyone behind bars should be given education and training to help them away from crime and into a career - and this rehabilitative viewpoint is gaining ground.

Both the packing plants at Polmont Young Offenders Institution, near Falkirk, were shut down last month after the Scottish Prison Service came to the conclusion that inmates gained no beneficial skills from the task.

Next month, a pound;3 million building project will begin to transform the bigger plant into the first dedicated performing arts space in a Scottish prison. The move is part of an ambitious programme to turn Polmont into an internationally recognised centre of learning for young offenders, after a damning inspection report warned that too many inmates spent their afternoons "in bed or watching daytime television".

A sense of purpose

Issuing his verdict last February, Brigadier Hugh Monro, then prisons inspector, was critical of the repeated failures by authorities to address poor access to education and employment opportunities. The issue had been raised in almost every inspection during the previous four years.

His concern was echoed by the Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee, which found that the young men at Polmont spent an average of just 12 hours a week participating in "purposeful activity". The committee called for action to ensure that more time was dedicated to teaching inmates the kind of skills that could give them a better life on release.

It will be 2015 before the arts centre is opened, but staff say that less dramatic changes have already been helping to improve Polmont's educational performance over the past year.

Gerry Michie, head of offender outcomes at the institution, says: "We have already come quite a long way. A year ago about 60 to 65 per cent of young people here were involved in purposeful activities. Now it is more than 90 per cent."

Explaining the decision to close the packing plants, he says: "We reviewed all activities after the inspection report and that was the only one that did not have any vocational or training element or an education or qualification base. Everything else we do does."

One of the most significant changes has been to reduce the number of hours that young offenders spend in a classroom setting, in order to increase the time they spend learning in other parts of the prison.

"Our morning session was from 8.30am to 12pm," Michie says. "We were asking young people, many of whom had been excluded from school in the past, to sit there for three and a half hours with only a 15-minute break, when that would not even happen in school.

"So we have cut the session in half, from 8.30am to 10.15am. After that they can go back to a work party [workshop], or the library, or do physical training."

The change is a step towards individual timetables. The decision to reduce class time has for the first time allowed staff to provide one-to-one teaching for those in the greatest need.

Katharine Brash, who manages prison learning services for Fife College, including those at Polmont, says: "Cutting the session hours has been one of the single biggest factors in moving things forward here. It has freed up staff who would have been in the learning centre to go out into other areas of the prison, like the halls, to target young people who are struggling or who don't want to engage.

"It's up to a member of staff to try to engage them. Sometimes it's genuinely just a matter of going to speak to them to break down the barriers. The young men at lower levels [of learning] don't really work that well in groups so one-to-one is better for them."

Learning for life

College lecturers also now spend more time in practical workshops where they identify areas of learning and skill development that can count towards vocational qualifications. The independent living unit, which taught inmates the basics of cooking and cleaning, has been replaced by life skills, offering a broader range of subjects such as budgeting and health issues.

"We think three weeks of life skills is a good amount of time to make them focus and give them the required information," Michie says. "We are piloting it now with six young people and at the end of the second week all six are still coming, so that's a pretty good sign."

A business and employability academy is also being set up as a one-stop shop for inmates to get advice on topics ranging from writing CVs to performing well in job interviews.

Just over a dozen staff have received training in promoting social and emotional well-being from government agency Education Scotland, which is working with the Scottish Prison Service to improve learning at Polmont. Six of these will go on to train the rest of the 350 staff, to help them to understand what motivates young men and how to communicate with them more effectively.

OK, computer

One of the greatest challenges in teaching prisoners is the ban on them accessing the internet. Polmont has plans to introduce an intranet system similar to the one that has proved a success at the newly opened HMP Grampian in Peterhead, where young offenders are imprisoned alongside adult inmates.

Brash describes Grampian's new system as "fantastic". "Each prison learning centre has ICT and we now have computers in the work sheds too," she says.

"It's always just been pen and paper before. It's about finding different ways to engage people and doing something interactive on a computer has been really successful. It also helps lecturers to keep course material current."

Another challenge for those teaching in prisons is the sheer volume of young offenders with learning difficulties. Recent research has confirmed that rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are particularly high among this demographic, for example. It is hoped at Polmont that one-to-one working will help to counteract this. Plans for the performing arts base, too, have been welcomed by experts who believe that delivering a broader range of subjects and learning styles alongside core numeracy and literacy lessons will help to engage inmates.

Helen Jones is children's service manager at charity Barnardo's Scotland, which is involved in the arts initiative. She says: "Youth work can deliver Curriculum for Excellence skills in a less formal way, such as [developing] confidence through drama and music, so the performance arts space will be brilliant."

The developments at Polmont chime with the concept of secure colleges, which are already being explored south of the border. It is a term that Sue Brookes, governor of Polmont, is keen to avoid using. Instead, she describes the institution as a "whole-establishment learning environment where every contact with a young offender should be a learning opportunity".

By the end of 2014, the prisons inspector will produce a follow-up report assessing progress. Whether it will confirm that young offenders are finally headed in the right direction remains to be seen. But with the packing plants now a thing of the past, the future looks far brighter than it did a year ago.

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Julia Horton

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