Sergeant triumphs in reaching out to young offenders

We speak to Sergeant Hamish MacLean who, since 2015, has been working in Polmont Young Offenders Institute to change the behaviour of young criminals.

Working with offenders can be an intimidating prospect for many but it’s one Sergeant Hamish MacLean has come to embrace.

For the past two and a half years Hamish has been ‘embedded’ within Polmont Young Offenders Institute, working with young criminals on a daily basis.

It wasn’t a move Hamish made lightly. In April 2015 he was successful in his application to run a programme aimed at adjusting the behaviour of young prisoners and helping them accustom to ‘normal’ life after release.

From feelingpretty anxious’  upon the start of the job, Hamish is now proud of the success the initiative has accomplished over the past two and a half years.

Sgt Hamish Maclean speaking Sergeant Hamish MacLean.

As a collaborative initiative between the Scottish Prison Service and Police Scotland, over 200 young offenders have been through the pilot programme since its inception.

The aim here is not to judge and punish those prisoners, but instead to educate them on a range of taboo topics to challenge and alter their pre-existing perceptions and behaviours.

We spoke to Hamish to gain an insight into how the programme was able to help offenders, why his beliefs towards offenders has changed, and the success with which he was able to get prisoners on side.

Getting the prisoners on side

Polmont Young Offenders Institute holds around 480 young offenders and Hamish concedes to having nerves upon moving there. It's very much an alien environment for a police officer.

Officers are at the front of tackling crime and help put criminals behind bars. It can be understandable for offenders to be suspicious of them.

Worrying questions crossed Hamish’s mind before his move. Would the offenders be hostile? Do they see the police as the enemy?

‘I must admit I was pretty anxious at the very start’, admitted Hamish,  'I wondered how the young people would react to a police officer in the jail’.

But, after a short period of time, he was accepted into the prison, helped greatly by those already working there. He soon gained the trust of the inmates.

Hamish drew upon his negotiator training to show empathy and build a rapport with the prisoners. The end game, of course, was to influence their behaviour and he was surprised to find that most actually wanted to change.

Brutal honesty in the prison environment was a tactic that worked pretty well in Hamish’s case.

‘I tell them the truth and don’t dress it up any other way…and I think they appreciate that’.

Working with young offenders

Hamish took us through what an average day looks like for him in Polmont. 

Working with groups of between 7 and 12 each day, the course is available to all within the prison, regardless of their crimes or past behaviour.

‘We have every young offender available for the programme, those whose crimes range from breaches of bail right through to murder’. All prisoners can benefit from the programme and therefore no one is told they aren’t welcome.

The information sessions are delivered on subjects that many of the inmates will be all too aware of. Often, however, the prisoners aren’t aware that their behaviour is criminal at all whilst others aren’t aware of how their behaviour has affected their community.

The sessions educate the inmates on subjects such as substance misuse, serious organised crime, anti-bullying, knife crime, understanding consent and domestic abuse, amongst others. They come out of the course with a greater world view and changed perceptions.

Following completion, the offenders are awarded a certificate at a ceremony attended by senior police officers This gives them an enormous sense of self-worth and confidence that they wouldn’t have gained otherwise.

Changing perceptions of young criminals

Hamish is the first to admit that his perspective of prisoners and people in general has been altered as a result of working in Polmont.

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I think that, in the past, I was far too quick to jump to conclusions, label and judge people. Having worked with some of Scotland’s most prolific offenders I find the vast majority of them have had a terrible start in life and would like to change if they got the chance. After all we all make mistakes.

Sergeant Hamish MacLean

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Why do young offenders commit crime and behave the way they do? Such a difficult question to answer and one that can be debated for years to come.

Hamish believes it’s a mixture of social/economic pressures, difficult childhood experiences, trauma following bereavement and learning difficulties, and certainly feels a greater empathy having spent time with the young men.

He’s also involved in training front-line police officers to understand some of the above issues about why young offenders act the way they do.

Success in changing behaviour

It can be easy to write off and tell young offenders that they have no value in society, and many can be tempted to return to their old way of life. Thankfully the initiative is having success in changing their behaviour.

‘I typically find that from the start to the end of their activity their perception of the future, police and prison staff has improved significantly.’

Polmont-prison-montageInside and out of Polmont Young Offenders Institute.

The course provides young offenders with a greater understanding of difficult subjects and addresses how their behaviour can bring them into conflict with the police.

Over 75% of those who start the course finish it, a particularly high number compared with other activities within the Institute.

Helping young people readjust into life after prison

In one successful example, an offender, who had a history of violent offending, was referred to the VRU (Violence Reduction Unit) Tattoo Project earlier in the year. The project allows people who have spent time in prison to work with the British Army and provide support to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The young man was then successful in securing a role at Celtic Football Club as a trainee coach.

In his role at the prison, Hamish also supports the Through Care Support function which helps people successfully return to their communities.

Following the success of the initiative, it’s Hamish’s long term goal to extend the programme to other prisons across Scotland and it’s due to start in Low Moss prison in East Dunbartonshire and HMP Grampian.

For now, however, the initiative is making great strides in Polmont and long may that continue.