INMATES at Scotland’s prison for young offenders are committing hundreds of offences a month in an environment “verging on mayhem”, according to new figures.
Criminals at Polmont have committed 13,539 offences in five years – higher than any other Government run prison in Scotland.
And cases of fighting and disobedience are rife at the Falkirk institution for offenders between 16 and 21.
Despite the high rates of reported offences the number of punishments being handed out is on the wane.
The revelations about the prison follow a pledge this week by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to take a stronger approach to try and reduce youth crime and save public money.
But commentators are calling for an inquiry into the disorder at the institution amid fears young offenders are being schooled in how to commit crime while behind bars.
Since 2006 there have been more fights in Polmont than any other prison in Scotland.
A total of 2137 brawls have taken place in the last five years – which amounts to almost two a day.
Acts of disobedience are also commonplace with almost 4500 taking place during the same period.
Almost 1000 assaults took place and there were nearly 1600 instances of prisoners damaging property.
Labour Justice spokeswoman Johann Lamont said: “These are very alarming figures and there needs to be an inquiry.
“Kenny MacAskill has to send a clear message this is unacceptable and make sure action is taken.
“What hope is there for these young offenders to reform and be rehabilitated if they are in an environment that is verging on mayhem?
“We believe prison can work but staff are also under growing pressure due to increasing budget cuts.”
John Scott, a leading human rights lawyer and chair of the Howard League for Penal Reform in Scotland said: “We often think when someone is sent to jail we don’t need to consider them anymore. But prisons have been described as universities of crime.
“Prisons or young offenders’ institutions aren’t always the right place for young offenders. It doesn’t stop them committing crimes and it doesn’t force them to reflect on their behaviour.
“These figures are really part of the problem of prison overcrowding, an issue which we don’t often think about.”
He said a reduction in the number of prisoners would help prison staff do what they were trained to do.
“There is a lot of very good work being done by prison staff trying to help young offenders stay out of trouble. But all of that becomes very difficult if you have the number of prisoners we have.
“So far no one has found a way of keeping drugs out of prison. I have had clients who have developed drug and even heroin addictions after going to jail.
“We need to not send people to prison and then just forget about them.
“Particularly about Polmont, I think the young male population contributes to the number of offences.”
The figures released through freedom of information legislation do not break down the number of offences by year, so it is not possible to find out if the number of misdemeanours is on the rise in Polmont.
But the number of punishments handed down to the prison’s young inmates has decreased from 7072 in 2007 to 5409 in 2010.
However inmates can receive more than one punishment for a single offence.
In five years 9677 inmates lost out on leisure time.
And almost 7000 prisoners forfeited earnings as a result of their misdemeanours.
Speaking at a conference in Dumfries on Wednesday, the Justice Secretary outlined the Whole System Approach, which aims to hold young people to account for their behaviour, and stop them following the wrong path into a life of crime.
Mr MacAskill gave details of plans for early intervention to divert minor offenders towards positive activities.
He said the scheme would involve agencies sharing intelligence on serious and persistent offenders to identify and challenge behaviour.
Community service would also be used more to develop skills and encourage safer communities, he said.
Mr MacAskill’s speech followed a pilot in Aberdeen which he claimed had shown significant cost savings and seen a reduction in youth crime of almost 10 percent.
Kilmarnock was reported as having the highest number of offences of any prison in Scotland, with more than 17,000 reported punishable offences within five years, but it has a larger capacity than Polmont and is privately run.
Perth, with a population of almost 600 inmates, has seen 10518 punishable offences.
Edinburgh, with almost 900 inmates, has seen 10247 punishable offences reported.
There have only been 6335 reported offences at Barlinnie, which has a population of more than 1400 prisoners.
Polmont is Scotland’s national holding facility for young offenders aged between 16 and 21.
The contracted numbers are 760, with a maximum space for 830, making Polmont arguably the biggest young offenders’ institution in Britain. Sentences range from six months to life.
The average sentence length is between two and four years.
Recently the number of prisoners in Scottish jails reached a record high prompting riot fears.
On one day this month the Scottish Prison Service housed a record-breaking 8222 prisoners – even though the system is designed to hold only 7,300.