Young offenders prefer prison to freedom

MINISTERIAL hopes of reducing reoffending rates and cutting Scotland’s jail population have been dealt a blow by a new study into how prisoners view life inside the country’s flagship institution for young offenders.

Some of the juvenile prisoners regard Polmont as a “holiday camp with whatever you need” and no deterrent to a life of violence and crime.

For others, Polmont is a “more favourable option” to serving community-based restrictions, such as curfews, within their own homes.

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Many of the inmates, some of whom are just 16 years old, appeared to accept they will spend the equivalent of a life sentence behind bars – albeit in a series of stints – and that Polmont is often a welcome break from the world outside.

The study, Tales of Glasgow’s Lost Boys, was carried out by Ross Deuchar, professor of youth and community studies at the West of Scotland University. The academic interviewed inmates and staff at the 820-space prison near Stirling as part of his research for a book due out next year on ­policing youth violence.

He insists that the Scottish government must fund more community-based alternatives to locking up young offenders as time spent in Polmont is not proving effective.

Benny, an 18-year-old serial offender found guilty of ­attempted murder, told him he welcomed returning to ­Polmont after being convicted of a crime. “You’ve got your telly, freeview channels, dole money to buy tobacco... whatever you need is here,” he said.

Another juvenile offender, Stewart, had been placed under curfew restrictions and was happier when returned to Polmont. The 17-year-old said: “It’s better in here. Once I got put on the curfew, I’d rather have come in here and done my sentence and got out.”

Cal, another 18-year-old, who had been convicted of ­assault and robbery, and was back in Polmont, added: “After my third time I didn’t care any more... because it’s just a holiday camp [in prison].”

One of the wardens identified the problem the Scottish Government faces. “There are guys who come in here all the time. They’ll do a life sentence but in three month, 12 month, 18 month segments.”

More than 80 per cent of young offenders at Polmont have served two or more terms and it is only a minority Deuchar holds out any hope for.

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“For some of the young guys I met, first-time offenders, it can be a deterrent. So hopefully, if they have access to education in prison, and when they go out that carries on, maybe they can be rehabilitated and do not go back,” he said.

“But once they start returning, and more than 80 per cent are coming back within a couple of years, they begin to get institutionalised and desensitised. They don’t see it [prison] as a threat.”

One contributing factor, Deuchar said, is the effect ­human rights legislation on prisoners’ rights had had on life in custody. “I think inevitably human rights legislation has made prisons more comfortable than they used to be. They have TVs, their own showers and toilets, etc. It’s a lot more comfortable than it used to be,” he said.

He also found that offenders were happier to stay in their cells, making it less likely they would engage in education and rehabilitation courses.

“Before, they at least had to come out to have a shower at some point. Now they can choose to stay confined.”

Deuchar’s report comes at a time when the Scottish prison population is at an all-time high of more than 8,000. He says this is partly because new legislation in 2010 introduced a presumption against issuing sentences of less than three months, and courts were now issuing more sentences of above three months.

“It is essential the government provides more funding for community-based sanctions and rehabilitation as an alternative to custody for young offenders,” he said.

John Lamont, Scottish Conservative chief whip, said victims of crime would find it galling that offenders describe Polmont as a “holiday camp”.

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“Many of these teenagers have destroyed lives through their offending and victims will take no comfort in hearing their tormentors are having a ball at the taxpayers’ expense.

“The two main roles of prison are to punish and rehabilitate. If the youngsters and prison officers are to be believed, neither is happening at Polmont,” he said.

The Scottish Prison Service believes Polmont can only be part of the solution to tackling youth crime.

A spokesman said: “The challenge of preventing people from becoming career criminals goes beyond Polmont. The idea that robust community punishments might be one way of dealing with them is one we would have no objection to.”

A Scottish Government spokesman added: “Cutting youth crime is a key priority and we want to nip bad behaviour in the bud before it ­becomes a problem later. That’s why we have introduced a range of initiatives, such as our Whole System Approach, to tackle all aspects of youth offending – from low-level crime to the most serious and harmful offences.”