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‘Urgent action’ is needed over Porterfield Prison in Inverness, says Scotland's top prisons inspector; HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland calls on government to 'expedite' plans to build new prison in Highland capital

By Philip Murray

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Inside Porterfield Prison in Inverness. Picture: Gary Anthony, HNM staff photographer.
Inside Porterfield Prison in Inverness. Picture: Gary Anthony, HNM staff photographer.

CALLS for urgent action to replace the outdated prison in Inverness have been echoed by leading politicians in the Highlands.

Several MSPs have backed the views of the country’s leading prison inspector, after she warned that HMP Inverness was not "fit-for-purpose".

The HM Inspectorate of Prisons for Scotland this week called on the Scottish Government and Scottish Prison Service to “expedite” efforts to replace the ageing Victorian site at Porterfield with a new state-of-the-art facility.

Chief Inspector Wendy Sinclair-Gieben made the remarks in the organisation’s annual report.

“While the significant investment made in relatively recent years in new facilities is greatly welcomed, there remains an urgent need to progress development of a replacement for HMPs Barlinnie, Greenock and Inverness,” she said.

“In a 21st century justice system, Victorian prisons are costly to run and no longer fit-for-purpose, with cramped cellular accommodation designed for one but holding two, a lack of accessible cells, and steep narrow stairwells unsuitable for older or more infirm prisoners.

“These grim realities mean the Scottish Government and the Scottish Prison Service must expedite their replacement.”

She also added that efforts to improve the women’s prison system in Scotland were “positive” but may not go far enough. Highland families have long argued that the existing system leaves them with lengthy journeys to visit incarcerated female relatives.

“The work to redevelop the women’s estate into a combination of Community Custody Units and a centralised state-of-the-art facility is positive, but it remains to be seen whether, without further changes in approaches to sentencing, sufficient capacity is being created.”

Responding to her remarks, Highland Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: "[The Chief Inspector] is completely correct in stating that Victorian prisons, like Inverness, are not fit for purpose anymore and that they urgently need to be upgraded and I do hope there’s no further delay in getting our new one built.

“Moreover, I would be interested to see the outcome of independent monitoring to assess the impact that the fabric of the old building has on vulnerable prisoners and on how it affects prisoners’ work opportunities.”

Mrs Grant continued: “I have been pressing the Scottish Government to place a Community Custody Unit in Inverness so that women offenders in the Highlands and Islands can be closer to families, particularly children and I will continue to do so.

“Women being placed so far away ultimately means the support of friends and family no longer exist when they are released and this can encourage the revolving door of crime.”

And Conservative Highland MSP Edward Mountain said: “This report proves yet again that the Highlands desperately needs a new prison.

“HM Chief Inspector has given a damning assessment on the condition of the current prison. It is totally unacceptable that our valued prison staff still have to work in a Victorian prison which isn’t fit for purpose.

“It’s time this SNP government builds the modern in Inverness, as this report tells them to do.

“Ten years of delay makes its progress more vital. It is a clear message: ‘get on with it.’”

Responding to the report, a spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said: "As you know we have already secured a site and planning permission and the intention is to proceed with plans in Inverness and to replace other Victorian prison's like HMP Barlinnie.

"Those plans will be taken forward next year. That commitment has been given," he added, saying that the Covid pandemic had been responsible for recent delays.

And Scottish Government spokesperson added: “We welcome HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland’s annual report which recognises our prisons are generally well run and stable and as a country we can take pride in how our prisons are operating. This is thanks in large part to the hard work and dedication of prison staff who have forged positive relationships with prisoners and who report feeling safe.

“We continue to monitor the prison population and we are actively considering what further action is required to both reduce the use of imprisonment and maintain a lower prison population. Prior to the pandemic, we took a number of steps to help increase the use of community-based interventions, which are often a more effective and appropriate way of dealing with offending behaviour, and to reduce the use of imprisonment

“We are committed to modernising the prison estate and our priorities for investment are finalising development of the new female custodial estate and progressing with plans for a replacement for HMP Barlinnie and HMP Inverness. Plans for the design and development of HMP Highland are under way at a chosen site at Inverness Retail and Business Park.Transformative plans for the female estate will deliver a new national prison and 2 Community Custody Units in Dundee and Glasgow tailored to the specific support needs of women, over the duration of 2022.”

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