CONDITIONS at Peterhead Prison have come under fire in a report published by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons last week.

The report, which followed a short, focused inspection of the jail in June this year, highlighted a series of problems caused by a lack of investment in the prison building.

Cells at Peterhead were found to be the worst within the Scottish Prison Service and the continued use of a form of slopping out was branded "the worst single feature of prisons in Scotland."

The jail was also criticised for the limited opportunities which exist for prisoners to engage in purposeful work or activities.

It has been announced that a new 'super-jail', HMP Grampian, will be built on the prison site at Peterhead, to replace the aging facility as well as Craiginches in Aberdeen, but construction will not begin for some time.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dr Andrew McLennan, who headed the inspection team, commented: "Uncertainty about the future of the prison has now been ended. Previous reports have commented on the damage done to HMP Peterhead by continuing uncertainty. One aspect of that damage has been the lack of investment over the last five years at least.

"Now that a new prison has been announced, it is even less likely that more money will be spent on the existing building: yet its condition continues to deteriorate and prisoners continue to live in it.

"The continuing use of chemical toilets is the most obvious sign of lack of investment in the prison building. Peterhead is the only prison in the United Kingdom where prisoners have no access to toilets when locked in their cells. Its continuation remains the worst single feature of prisons in Scotland.

"During the inspection 30 prisoners who should have been at work in the woodworking workshops had not been there for some weeks and would continue not to be a work for weeks.

"The closure of the workshops can be traced to the dilapidated state of the building. This is because the hinges on a gate have rusted through, and the gate cannot be opened. A lorry essential to the workshop cannot enter and the workshop cannot operate.

"Even if this is an exceptional circumstance, access to work still is limited. There are prisoners who have no job; and there are prisoners who have a job but do not always have the opportunity to go to it; and there are prisoners who go to work but do nothing when they are there. Prisoners in Peterhead can spend long hours locked up in their cells doing nothing."

The preparation for release of prisoners at Peterhead has caused concern for the Inspectorate in the past and continues to do so.

Dr McLennan said: "The criticism has been - and continues to be - in two forms. One is the absence of community placements which would allow some testing in the community before prisoners are released.

"The other is about the small number of prisoners who participate in the 'SOTP' programme: the programme designed to address the offending behaviour of sex offenders.

"The number of places on the SOTP programme available at Peterhead can do nothing to address the number of prisoners waiting to participate.

"Prisoners who have been convicted of serious sex offences are the very prisoners who should get the best possible preparation for release. They are still the prisoners who get the worst preparation for release."

Visiting rooms and catering facilities available to visitors were also deemed inadequate by the inspection team.

But the report also identified areas of improvement, particularly in health care.

Dr McLennan said: "Staffing difficulties have been addressed and the morale of both nursing and medical staff is high. Nurse-led clinics ensure proper provision for prisoners with chronic diseases: this provision is well-supported by residential staff."

Commenting on the report, Peterhead South and Cruden councillor, Stephen Smith, said: "Firstly, I think it is important to understand that this report is a follow-up to a previous report and focuses solely on the conditions in which prisoners live and how they are treated and, in this respect, I notice that prison staff were singled out for praise for the health care they provided.

"I'm less concerned about conditions in prison for dangerous criminals than I am about the conditions for the staff who work there.

"The prison officers and support staff at Peterhead are dedicated to their jobs which, at the end of the day, make Scotland a safer place through the work that they do with prisoners.

"I want those staff to have the best possible conditions to work in so that they can do their jobs to the best of their ability.

"We know we will be getting a new-build prison, because the SNP Scottish Government has ended the dithering of the previous Executive by taking that decision. We know that funding for this has been identified because it was budgeted for in the Government spending plans. All we need now is the preliminary background work to be completed so that we can move forward, and I hope that this can begin sooner rather than later."