Kenneth Roy’s fine article on the deaths in custody of an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old at Polmont young offenders' institution affected me deeply. These deaths, unexpected and lonely, at ages when other youths are still in education or starting out in employment, and most likely going home every day to family, is a tragedy. A tragedy for the loss of promise of purposeful life. A tragedy for the grieving families and friends. A tragedy for the staff in Polmont who were closest to the young men.

Like Kenneth Roy, I observed with sadness, but no surprise, the lack of media attention. Like Kenneth Roy, I was bemused and not a little annoyed by the curiously worded official statement put out by the Scottish Prison Service press office which said that a fatal accident inquiry may follow. If my reading of the Inquiries into Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths etc. (Scotland) Act 2016 is correct, a fatal accident inquiry is mandatory in these circumstances and there is no discretion available to the Lord Advocate and the Crown Office. Roy is right to highlight this 'odd' belief in the SPS and at the very least we should expect a clarification. 

My experience of the 'new' Polmont young offenders’ institution is more recent than Roy’s. A colleague and I conducted interviews with young men in Polmont for a research project in 2014. I was last there for a meeting about 15 months ago, when the governor proudly showed a few of us the cafe culture that she and her staff had recently created in one 'hall' to try to encourage more normal socialisation.

There is a theatre and film studio, active links with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and, perhaps contrary to the impression given in Roy’s article, there is actually rather a lot of education going on. I recall meeting a prison officer, himself a keen road cyclist, who spoke enthusiastically about the bike repair workshop which has links with cycle repair shops in the community and therefore opportunities for future employment. I talked to a young man who told me about the dog training workshop he was enjoying, and another said he had started learning German simply because the classes were advertised.

Of course there are problems. Most of the young men have had very disrupted lives before being sentenced, and for many this means a background in and out of 'compulsory supervision', in the care system and/or at home. Typically they will have experienced several moves of care placement and school. It’s really no surprise that many have serious gaps in their basic education.

It is perhaps a little unfair to criticise 'the lack of incentive to take part in education or vocational training' [a criticism taken from the latest report of HM chief inspectorate of prisons] without saying something about the powerful disincentives which can overcome a natural curiosity or willingness to try something new. One obvious barrier is that the young people in Polmont are all past the compulsory school leaving age of 16, and so participating in education or employment training is voluntary.

The gulf between learning basic competence in the 3Rs and a job on the outside is realistically huge, despite the best efforts of resettlement programmes. Some boys prefer to stay in their ‘gaffs’ (cells), for a range of reasons, other than watching television – and, yes, even reading books. For some, there is a macho culture of 'doing your time' and sometimes an older brother or father will already have started them on this road. And for some others, this is basic survival. I interviewed a young man who had been a successful athlete. I asked if he was making good use of the excellent gym facilities or playing football. No, he preferred to do press-ups in his cell. Why? Because he had good reason to believe that other young men were out to try to break his legs.
I happen to know that the governor has been working hard with Education Scotland to improve the education provision. The chief inspector of prisons' report quoted by Roy says many of the staff regard Polmont as 'just another prison'. If that’s a true reflection it’s sad and worrying, but even that criticism gives some hope, because many others don’t share this attitude. Prison officers are much better trained and qualified than in the past, and are selected for their wider interests and relationship-building skills.

There needs to be a public debate about why we incarcerate so many young people in Scotland and why prisons for people just out of childhood – and typically from far from normal childhoods – need to be so large. Polmont has a capacity of more than 700, hardly conducive to the kind of culturally enhancing atmosphere that Roy and the chief inspector envisage.
And we do need to read a revised, unambiguous statement from the Scottish Prison Service press office about its position on fatal accident inquiries following deaths in custody.

Dr Graham Connelly is with the University of Strathclyde

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