MY first thought is: it doesn’t look like a prison. There’s a corridor painted in cheerful primary colours. The communal area has the air of an airport lounge or hotel reception. And pasted on the walls are inspirational words in confident capital letters. Words like “unlocking potential” and “transforming lives”.

But this is a prison, whatever it looks like. To get inside, I’m asked for ID and have to surrender my mobile and I’m accompanied by an officer through the heavy doors, further and further in. In one of the corridors, we’re passed by two members of staff accompanying an inmate, dressed in black, eyes down; he looks desperately young. Polmont does accommodate some adults but the inmates here can be as young as 16.

Eventually, we reach an open area surrounded by smaller rooms including the prison barber where some of the inmates are taught how to cut hair with a view to finding a job, or a purpose, when they get out. One of the other rooms is filled with books that offer alternative realities to crime. Books like “From Prisoner to Priest” and “Why Forgive?” Do the prisoners read them, I wonder.

And then in comes the main man I’ve come to meet: Keith Brown, deputy leader of the SNP and Cabinet Secretary for Justice. He’s got a bit of a sore throat so his voice is croaky but he’s in an upbeat mood following a meeting with a few of the lads who are in here. Just him and the prisoners, no other staff, no advisors, no PR people. That’s the way he wanted it.

The obvious question to ask him is what he learned from the meeting and what he might change as a result. The main thing, he says, is that inmates are often in the dark about what’s happening to them, where they’re going, and when. One guy was moved with just 10 minutes’ notice, says Mr Brown, and that’s unsettling and unnecessary and he’ll be looking at what he can do to change it. Potentially, it’s one of the little wins that’ll come out of today.

But the main reason the minister is here in Falkirk is to find out more about a project called Inside Out. Funded by the National Lottery and run by Barnardo’s and the charity Youth Justice Voices, one of its aims is to give Polmont inmates a say in what happens in the jail. For example, a group of prisoners is drawing up an induction pack for new arrivals that’s written in the kind of language young people relate to. It’s hoped that in drawing up the pack, the young prisoners will also pick up skills that will help them when they get out of here.

Obviously, there will be some people who will detect in all of this the whiff of a “soft touch” and the staff who work on Inside Out are familiar with that kind of reaction. Lisa Hogg of Barnardo’s tells me people sometimes say to her that prison should be hard and miserable, but her response is that the punishment for the inmates is being taken out of society and they shouldn’t be punished further. And isn’t it better, she says, that while they’re in Polmont, they get a chance to change and make better choices? Good question.

Interestingly, this is also the philosophy which Mr Brown says he is trying to apply to the prison service as a whole. Locking people up for longer and longer and leaving them in their cells doesn’t work, he says. He also believes the best thing he can do for the victims of crime is to reduce reoffending and therefore reduce the number of victims overall. Some people call it “soft” he says and I can see him bristling at the phrase. The description he prefers is “sensible”.

The obvious next question therefore is to what extent the Government is achieving these aims. Scotland has a notoriously high prison population. I think it’s also fair to say that we are still to really see the results of the government’s presumption against sentences of less than 12 months. And there’s the high number of prisoners on remand in Scotland – the minister tells me it’s currently 28%.

I ask him why he thinks the remand figures are so high and he says some people have told him it’s a cultural thing in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. Scotland also seems to have a particular problem with people not turning up for court so it’s thought better to keep an accused in jail to ensure they can’t do a runner. Mr Brown hopes his new Bail and Release Bill will change that by focusing remand on prisoners who are an actual risk to public safety. But he admits it’s a work in progress.

What’s really encouraging however is that the philosophy of government and prison seems to be undergoing change. Lisa of Barnardo’s has worked in Polmont for 20 years and says the system has come on leaps and bounds in that time. Polmont’s governor Gerry Michie says something similar: the population of the prison is much smaller than it was, the ratio between staff and inmates is good, and education and support is explicitly at the heart of what they do. The aim, he tells me, is to prepare people to return to society as better citizens.

All of this is really good stuff even though Mr Michie and others admit the outcomes do not always meet the aims – that’s to be expected given the often chaotic lives of the inmates. And even though I tell the minister that I’m often discouraged by the slow pace of change, it’s encouraging to hear him admit the problems. I also warm to him when he tells me about his lifelong antipathy to the death penalty. The US, he says, is often a model of how not to do things. Too right.

So what else did I learn from the encounter with Mr Brown? Thankfully, it’s that as well as being honest about the problems, he’s hopeful but realistic about the solutions. He admits the prison population in Scotland is way too high, which is a good start: it is. But he also says he doesn’t want to arbitrarily cut the numbers or set targets and that makes a lot of sense. Targets can end up distorting the way you do things.

Better to get the policies right. Better to get prisons working well to a stated aim of reducing recidivism. The hope then is that, in time, prison numbers will fall because people have been helped and changed. I think of the phrase above the front door at Polmont: “transforming lives”. Some will see those words and think they’re a bit soft or naïve even. But they’re actually spot on. The aim of a prison is punishment but it’s not only punishment. It’s also about asking a question at the end of the jail sentence. This person has been punished. But have they also been changed?