PRISON chiefs are being called on to make a U-turn on plans to make Inverness’s new multimillion-pound jail men only.
Women prisoners will continue to be shipped to Peterhead instead of being accommodated at the new facility, a move critics are branding a "missed opportunity".
The state-of-the-art £66 million prison, which is expected to be built close to Inverness Retail Park, will replace the city’s overcrowded Victorian-built jail in the Crown and should open in the early 2020s.
It has planning permission in principle but the revelation about it being restricted to men only has stunned a veteran Inverness lawyer and a Labour MSP, who have both condemned the decision and urged the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) to think again.
Decision-makers argue that, based on historical experience, there is no demand for women’s accommodation within the new complex but the critics consider that short-sighted.
Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said she was "deeply disappointed" that women offenders would not be able to serve their sentences locally and will instead be transported to Grampian.
Having sought information about the proposals for women prisoners, she said the SPS had advised her that the new complex would "predominantly accommodate untried and convicted adult males, with the majority of those convicted serving short sentences – up to a maximum of four years".
Mrs Grant said: "It would be totally unacceptable if there were no facilities for women offenders to carry out their sentences here.
"I’m told consideration is currently being given to flexible accommodation which may provide overnight lodging of women and young people to facilitate local court appearances."
She argued that prison sentences not only impacted on the criminal but on their family – and "family" has been a paramount consideration in planning the new prison.
"We must ensure families, particularly children, can easily visit a loved one while they are serving their sentence," Mrs Grant said.
Long-serving Inverness lawyer Ken MacLeod echoed her views. He said: "I would have expected, in this day and age, that such a provision was included.
"OK, there has to be strict gender segregation but it could be divided satisfactorily in Inverness.
"With families being looked after these days, I’d have thought it essential that provision be made available in the area for female prisoners.
"I’m disappointed. To ferry people all the way to Peterhead is a nonsense and I think they should think again."
The SPS pointed out that it "toiled to get numbers" when such a unit was previously created at Porterfield to give them community access – and that the sparse number of women inmates made it "a particularly good news story".
A spokesman for the service said: "Women will be held there when appearing in court, as they are at the moment.
"But they’ll be accommodated in facilities that better meet their needs and where we’re able to provide the variety of regime that we think they need and deserve.
"You can’t do that when you’ve got very small numbers of individuals."
He confirmed that, as happens now, women inmates would be accommodated in Grampian.
The Scottish Government has announced a proposal for up to five community custody units but their location will depend on local demand.
Highland Council planners have granted planning permission – in principle – for the prison complex along with a visiting facility, family hub, community integration unit and car park.