NO-ONE thinks Barlinnie is pleasant, except perhaps for those Daily Mail types who claim prisons are holiday camps where the inmates get free Sky, luxurious en-suite bathrooms, and king-size beds. Everyone else knows “the big hoose”, or Bar-L, is a forbidding, dangerous place and when Ross Kemp goes inside to spend 10 days in the prison, the inmates confirm our suspicions: “It’s a bear pit, mate. A hellhole, mate.”

I like Ross Kemp’s danger-documentaries as he really seems to roll up his sleeves and get involved. When he meets gangs and drug dealers, or enters war zones, there’s never the sense that he’s reporting from a safe, sunny spot while his crew do all the risky stuff for him. He’s willing to throw himself into the action, and that’s exactly what he did in Ross Kemp Behind Bars (STV, Thursday) where he went inside Barlinnie to speak to prisoners and staff.

“I’m going to get exactly the same treatment” as the convicts, he said as he went through the grim check-in process. We might as well admit it: all our thoughts turned to cavity searches. Is Kemp going to have to drop his shorts and bend over? My preview copy suggested he did, but when I watched the full edit we saw such uncomfortable procedures are a thing of the past. These days, a new prisoner will be made to sit on a metal-detecting chair which can survey the body’s nooks and crannies for any hidden drugs, phones or weapons. Then a powerful body scanner does a further check.

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But even these methods aren’t enough to keep contraband out of the jail. One guard explains the ingenious methods employed by family and friends to get drugs to their loved ones. A favourite method is to soak clothes in a Valium solution and then hurl them over the wall. The recipient will wring the liquid out of the fabric, straining it like tea, to obtain the sedative. There are also people who intentionally get themselves put into prison as a money-making scheme. They come into the jail “banked”, ie, full of drugs, and can then “make thousands. The sky’s the limit, really.” You can’t help but think these people could have alternative careers as dazzling entrepreneurs and inventors – if something hadn’t put them on the path to jail. Whether that “something” was personal choice, bad luck, or that old chestnut, “society”, isn’t for us to say, but the programme did spark off some thinking.

Anyway, it’s probably hard to strike up such an alternative career when you’ve never had a job in the first place. We see that the inmates are put to work each day, giving them a desperately needed routine. There’s work to be done and a small amount of money to be earned – £12 a week for working in the kitchens – and Kemp points out that this might be the first time some of the offenders have actually worked. That should have our politicians rattling with shame. Who knows? If these men had held satisfying jobs with decent pay on the outside then maybe crime wouldn’t have been so tempting, either as a way to release tension or to assuage boredom. It would also mean they had something to lose.

However, not all of the men are in prison because of relatively minor things which might have been solved by having a decent, active life on the outside. In the strongest part of the show, Kemp enters E-Hall, the sex offender wing. It holds 280 prisoners, four times as many as a decade ago. Several are old men, convicted of historic sex abuse, with the oldest being 89 and requiring carers. This is Scotland’s fastest-growing prison population.

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Kemp meets one who had downloaded indecent images of children. “I’m an idiot, basically ... I thought I would get away with it,” he says. He might have been commended for this honesty, especially as he admitted he can’t be cured of his attraction to children, but then everything went horribly black. He stamped on any grudgingly positive feeling the viewer might have had by whining that he is not a threat to society because no-one was harmed by him simply looking at photos. What about the children in the photos, says Kemp? “Some of them seemed to quite enjoy it,” was his answer.

Throughout this exchange, Kemp was controlled and icy, but clearly angry. If the viewer wanted to punch at this point, then bravo to Kemp for keeping his cool.

The programme started with a slightly cheeky, comic tone, as inmates warned Kemp that “people will just punch you oot yer trainers here” and that fights can suddenly erupt with “c**** rollin’ aboot the floor”, but once we’d had a chance to gawp at the “bams” and “neds”, the show got serious.

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It also raised the topical question of short sentences. The governor was opposed to jailing people for a few weeks, saying “I’d rather [prison] was about changing people” and not just punishing them, and that you can’t attempt to “change” people for the better with a short sentence because it often does more harm than good: a short sentence simply means they will lose jobs, tenancies, and contact with supportive family and friend networks. Here was an expert telling us short sentences don’t work, yet the ordinary man in the street, including me, would probably howl and demand jail time for most offenders. So what’s the alternative? That was the best part of this programme: it made us ask questions.