As construction work on HMP Grampian races towards completion, the Buchan Observer had the unique opportunity to tour the facility, writes Joshua King.
The new prison, which will replace both HMP Aberdeen and HMP Peterhead, has been a topic of fierce debate for more than two years.
The facility on the southern edge of the town will be, when it goes live in March, the most advanced jail in the UK and on the morning of Tuesday, November 5, project director Gareth Jacques from Skanska opened the doors to give the Buchanie an intimate look inside the country’s first community facing prison.
When the SAS were called to put down a riot and rescue 56-year-old guard Jackie Stuart from the neighbouring Victorian prison 26 years ago, one of the rioters’ biggest grievances was the distance families had to travel to visit.
The problem will, hopefully, never arise again.
Mr Jacques says: “Community facing is a term that the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) use for a prison that has multiple prison groups and the intention is that families and their ability to see people in prison is made easier to help reoffending rates.
“It’s partly that prisoners in here will come from the North-east as well as, occasionally, from further afield.”
The workers are using a gap in the 5.5 metre perimeter concrete wall to enter the site through a ‘sterile zone’ and an razor wire-topped fence.
Inside, spread over 17.5 hectares, are three main detention blocks: one for male prisoners, one for female and a third for young offenders - HMP Grampian will be the first to incorporate all three groups on one site.
In and around the cellblock buildings, the services building and the gatehouse, dozens of Skanska workers are looking for any defects and fixing them before the site is handed over to the SPS at the end of this month.
That word ‘community’ also sums Skanska’s attitude towards its workforce.
Mr Jacques says: “It was very important to include local people in the project - it was a committment within our original tender to SPS.
“Wherever possible we’ve tried to create opportunities for local people and that’s been through a variety of roles, whether through general labour or office staff.”
The Swedish-based construction firm, who also built the Young Offenders Institute at Polmont, worked closely with Job Centre Plus in Peterhead and Banff and Buchan College to give work to the Buchan community.
But passing through the gates, it is not the men and women in high-visibilty jackets who catch the eye.
Although the development has faced criticism for incoporating facilities considers too luxurious for convicted criminals, it is clear on entering the cell blocks that when those doors slam shut, inmates will have no doubt that they have lost their freedom.
The interior of the male block - to the west of the site - is closest to how those of us who have never spent time inside might picture a prison.
Arranged over three levels, corridors of identical cells stretch out like fingers from a central control desk.
Prisoner officers can efficiently manage the entire floor from here but Mr Jacques explains that, in case of an lockdown, there is an emergency staircase which will whisk the guards up into a safe area.
The prison cells are small and contain a bed, work surface and a basic toilet.
Outside are four-seat metal tables bolted to the floor and at the near end of the barred corridor is a small food hatch.
On the ground floor are cells set aside for segregated prisoners - men who for their own safety and the safety others must be kept apart from the wider prison population.
They have access to a tiny concrete excercise at the end of their corridor.
In the considerably smaller female block, the cells are nearly identical to the men’s but there are no bars across the windows and the doors have been given pine cladding.
The young offenders section is similar and the SPS have asked Skanska to rework it to be like the female block.
Experts now believe that harsh treatment of women and young people does little to prevent reoffending.
The reduction of reoffending rates is one of the chief concerns of the SPS and and it was at the forefront of the HMP Grampian design.
A sprawling services building in the centre of site provides ammenities including a high-spec medical centre (for obvious reasons prisoners cannot be taken to A&E other than in exceptional circumstances), a multi-faith room, workshops and classrooms.
Offering offenders education and providing them space practice their faith is a part vital of rehabilitation.
No where is this clearer than in the adjacent community reintegration unit.
Although not open for the Buchanie to see, Mr Jacques explained that the cells in here are specially designed to help men and women who may have been incarcerated for years fit back into society.
He said: “Prisoners who have been identified for release will spend some time in there, probably between 18-6 months before their release.
“It’s still a custodial building so it’s still locked up daily but it’s more of a domestic specification - they’ve got a bit more freedom to prepare their own food, do their own laundry and learn life skills before they go back into the community.”
The final part of the prison shown to the Buchanie is the first that families and staff will see - the reception and gatehouse at the far east of the site.
Visitors will pass through x-ray machines and metal detectors before meeting with inmates in either a relaxed, open-plan meeting space or in more secure glass rooms with two-way microphones.
Lawyers will be able to meet clients here privately.
But although this is where prisoners will likely spend their happiest moments behind bars - sitting with loved ones - one room upstairs underlines the severity of the world the prisoners and guards share.
Decked out with mock-up cell and padded floor not unlike a toddler’s play area, the emergency simulation room is used to teach guards how to subdue violent inmates.
As Mr Jacques brings the tour to a close after more than two hours, he explained what he and his team have got left to do: “We will still have a small presence to help them with familiarisation training and any queries and assistance that they may need once they take control of the prison.
“I’d personally like to thank the Skanska team, contractors, the SPS and particularly the local people for their patience and cooperation.
“The SPS are certainly hoping this can be the future of prison design. It’s a newer model, the first time a prison of this nature has been delivered in the UK and has a lot of focus from the SPS and politicians because, if it proves to be successful, it may have an influence on how prisons work elsewhere in the UK.”
Though a far cry from the luxurious five-star halfway house many people believe HMP Grampian to be, the new prison is more geared towards rehabilitation than 19th century retribution - an innovation which can only benefit society at large.