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COLIN CAMPBELL: ‘Pretty prison’ saga that’s turned into an ongoing farce for Inverness

By Colin Campbell

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An artist's impression of the planned new Inverness Prison.
An artist's impression of the planned new Inverness Prison.

The plan to build a new prison for Inverness and the Highlands has been the most farcical bricks and mortar – or no bricks and no mortar – saga dragged out in this region. It began more than 10 years ago, longer than some "life sentences" served these days.

Justice minister Angela Constance piled on the confusion and sense of ineptitude surrounding the project when, quizzed in the Scottish Parliament for the latest update, she dragged in “Brexit” and “hostile immigration” as among the reasons for the endless delay.

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It was launched as a matter of urgency to replace "not fit for purpose" Porterfield. Some sceptics a decade and more ago believed Porterfield was suitably fit for keeping offenders out of general society provided warders remembered to lock the main gates and cell doors. But a reasonable enough case was presented that a replacement was needed to more humanely contain those who had stepped outside the law in a serious way but still deserved better than the harsh interior of a Victorian relic.

At this stage the sense of urgency emanating from the Scottish Government, the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) and local politicians who keenly supported the plan was transmitted to communities across Inverness who didn't want it built anywhere near them, and prepared an urgently hostile response.

Public meetings were held to inform local residents why a new jail would be an excellent addition to their neighbourhoods. A particularly feisty one was held at the prime target location in Milton of Leys. Those who attended these fraught occasions where feelings ran so high probably look back on them now as historical flare-ups lost in the mists of time.

While the SPS was hunting around for somewhere to put their prison details were emerging about the planned new structure, and foremost among them was the phrase "state of the art".

If Porterfield was an old pigsty, the new jail would be an almost unrecognisable escape into the future. For the original target figure of around £50 million, it was clearly intended to be a stylishly contoured masterpiece. Elaborate artist's impressions were presented.

At a minimum, the aim seemed to be to create the prettiest prison ever built.

In the years that have since passed, two things have consistently happened. The costs of the new prison have risen faster than escapees climbing over a rope ladder. And a completion date – or even a start date – has come in the form of a continually deferred sentence.

Every "target date" presented by the Scottish Government so far has been missed. And the projected cost of the jail has increased from an initial £50 million to a current figure of £140 million, which will no doubt continue to rise.

The latest estimate is that it will be completed by 2026. Given the track record on timing so far, no one on a lengthy vacation in Porterfield should anticipate a transfer to more agreeable surroundings anytime soon.

You could make every allowance in the world for this delay – and justice chief Angela Constance has stretched that beyond all reasonable limits – without being able to conjure up a credible explanation as to why it should take 12-15 years to build one medium size new prison. If there had been less misplaced emphasis on style and elegance from the outset, we'd probably at a reasonable cost have the required four solid brick walls and suitably basic and not particularly welcoming jail cells already in place.

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