Children as young as 15 locked in cells for 23 hours a day - and they may be innocent

INMATES as young as 15 can find themselves locked up for 23 hours a day as a result of overcrowding at a Scottish detention centre.

In a damning report today, Dr Andrew McLellan, the chief inspector of prisons, has branded overcrowding at Polmont Young Offenders Institution, near Falkirk, as "tragic". He also questioned whether it is now realistic to hold all under-21s convicted north of the Border there.

Dr McLellan said conditions had improved, but the opening of new halls at Polmont had been blighted by the problem of overcrowding.

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According to his report, the two main halls were "not nearly big enough" to hold the number of inmates likely to be housed there. It went on: "It is almost tragic, therefore, that the advantage gained for these young men by the opening of the new halls is threatened by overcrowding.

"The question must now be asked whether or not it is realistic to seek to hold all convicted prisoners under the age of 21 at Polmont: the site is very overstretched."

Last night, prison sources said children as young as 15 were routinely held at Polmont due to a shortage of places in local authority care.

"Polmont sometimes has under-16s held there. A sheriff can decide they need to be held in custody, and if there are no places in local authority care, they have to go to Polmont.

"It's not ideal, but Polmont is a default place," one source said.

There were two under-16s in the prison at the time of the inspection. Dr McLellan said: "It is deeply regrettable that the detention of children held in Polmont in the past 12 months has continued, despite widespread opposition to the practice."

The report found that more young men were being classified as adults to deal with the high numbers being sent to Polmont. Another consequence of overcrowding was that inmates were spending longer periods locked in their cells.

"It is not unusual for a convicted young offender in Iona [hall] to spend as much as 20 hours in one day locked up in a cell for one person with a stranger," the report said.

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The people who suffered most were prisoners on remand. "Some can be locked up for at least 23 hours out of 24. Tragic is the right word when splendid new accommodation is prevented by very high numbers from making the difference it could have made."

Polmont is contracted by the prison service to hold 623 young offenders, but on the first day of the inspection in April and May this year, there were 682 inside. There were a further 89 in Friarton Hall at Perth and 21 on home detention curfew.

Derek Turner, assistant secretary of the Prison Officers' Association Scotland, said overcrowding had a negative impact on inmates and staff.

"Every single report they have done has talked of over-crowding," he said. "It's a logistical problem. You can only open up the doors when you feel it stops [prisoners] getting their rehab."

Polmont was depicted as violent in a recent TV documentary, but Dr McLellan said incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner violence were falling, and the discovery of good conditions throughout the prison was "very satisfying".

Serious acts of prisoner-on-prisoner violence showed a downward trend with 16 recorded instances in 2005-6 and eight in 2006-7.

The end of slopping out was also singled out for praise in the report, which said that conditions had improved at the centre, where every inmate enjoys "good accommodation".

Despite the overcrowding, relationships between prisoners and staff were said to be good, with no suggestions of intimidating or demeaning attitudes from staff towards inmates.

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Last night, a spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said the numbers at Polmont had dropped to 656 and there were plans to transfer about 50 inmates to Greenock prison by the end of the year to ease congestion. Next month, a new hall is due to open at Perth prison, to allow inmates to be redeployed.


7am: Wake-up call and numbers check.

7:30am: Breakfast in cell.

7:45am: Cell doors opened. Inmate tidies cell.

8am: Prisoner goes to work or attends education placement, learning a trade such as brick-laying or joinery.

10am: Tea-break.

10:15am: Visit from lawyer, if appropriate.

10:45am: Return-to-work or education placement. Only convicted prisoners required to work, those on remand can opt out.

11:45am: Prisoner returns to cell. TV available. Another numbers check.

12:30pm: Lunch, usually in cell.

1-2pm: Exercise in yard.

2-2:45pm: Return-to-work programmes or education placement. Some prisoners entitled to a visit from relatives.

2:45pm: Return-to-work/education.

4:30pm: Prisoner goes back to cell and prison officers have a break.

5:30pm: Numbers check.

6pm: Tea, usually taken in cell.

6:30-8:45pm: Cell opened for recreation. Time for gym, football, mixing with other prisoners. Possible family visits.

8:45pm: Return to cell for lock-up.