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HM Inspectorate of Prisons: Report on HMP Peterhead


1. Preamble

1.1 Peterhead is the last prison in Scotland where slopping out is the norm. The particular kind of slopping out in Peterhead is an arrangement based on chemical toilets, which are emptied twice a week, rather than chamber pots which were emptied every day (and still are in one hall in Polmont). The ending of slopping out in several prisons in the last two years has been welcomed in reports. Its continuation in Peterhead remains a disgrace. It is the worst single feature of prisons in Scotland.

1.2 The term "slopping out" disguises the reality. It refers to the process of getting rid of human waste, and produces an environment in which no one would want to live or work (comment on slopping out often forgets its implications for the working conditions of prison staff). But the true disgrace is in the periods of time between the opportunities for disposal: periods of time in which the human waste remains in the small cell in which, in the case of Peterhead, a prisoner is eating and sleeping. At weekends a prisoner can be locked in cell with his human waste for as much as 14 hours. A small number of prisoners in certain parts of the prison have access to proper sanitary arrangements. Ways must be found to make such opportunities possible for other prisoners.

1.3 Several prisons in Scotland hold prisoners convicted of sex offences. In almost every one, attention must be given to keeping these prisoners completely separate from other prisoners. "Mainstream" prisoners regularly subject them to threats and abuse whenever an opportunity arises. In Peterhead there are no "mainstream" prisoners; everyone is a sex offender. It is therefore a much safer environment for them than other prisons. Prisoners, who all come to Peterhead from other prisons, made many comments about feeling safe. The statistics confirm that there is little violence in Peterhead.

1.4 Sex offenders, the very people whose release into the community causes most anxiety to the public, are those who are worst prepared for that release. That was written in the inspection report of 2003 because of the limited number of prisoners who were taking part in the STOP programme, and because of the limited number of opportunities for sex offenders to be prepared for release in the community. Both of these very important matters are again cause for concern in this report.

1.5 The STOP programme is the principal tool used by the Scottish Prison Service to help long-term sex offenders address their offending behaviour. There is little evidence to help to answer the question "does it work?". So central is the programme to the role of imprisonment in reducing reoffending among sex offenders in Scotland that such evidence must be gathered soon.

1.6 The evidence which this report is able to provide is of a less significant nature, although still important. This report shows that the number of prisoners taking part in the STOP programme has increased significantly since the last full report, when the small number of prisoners taking part was a matter of real concern. It is clear that some effort has been put in to making the programme more available. If the programme does good, then it is very welcome that more people are participating in it.

1.7 The opportunities for preparation for release at Peterhead have also improved in terms of matters connected with release into the community. A small number of prisoners have taken part in a limited programme of supervised work in the community organised in partnership between the prison and Aberdeenshire Council. In its scale it is nothing like the community placements which other long-term prisoners may access in other prisons when a thorough safety assessment has been made: at Peterhead the prisoners are in the company of an officer at all times. But it is at least a beginning; and it is possible that from this beginning more useful schemes may develop. Sending sex offenders straight back into the community at the end of their sentences without any opportunity for being tested and learning in the community beforehand is not a good recipe for safety.

1.8 The report also notes that a limited scheme of supervised home leave has started for prisoners near the end of their sentences who have been assessed as low risk prisoners. For the same reasons as the supervised work activity scheme, this development also is likely to bring some reduction to the risks inherent in the release of long-term sex offenders; and will bring their preparation for release more into line with that of other long-term prisoners. However, there are difficulties in transferring prisoners nearing the end of their sentences to 'top ends' where they can access work placements in the community.

1.9 In 2005 a number of prisoners were transferred from Peterhead to Dumfries. These were prisoners who were not prepared to take part in the STOP programme. There have been two effects of this. One is in Peterhead, where staff and prisoners alike commented on the less confrontational atmosphere in the prison. The other is in Dumfries, where, as the recent inspection report there showed, the number of prisoner complaints has risen dramatically. For some time Peterhead has produced far more complaints from prisoners than any other prison; now Dumfries has joined it. The figures are remarkable. In 2004-05 of all prisoner complaints received by the Scottish Prison Complaints Commission, 30% came from Peterhead. In 2005-06, 59% of complaints submitted to SPCC came from Dumfries (37%) and Peterhead (22%) together.

1.10 This report and the most recent report on Dumfries provide evidence that the treatment and conditions of prisoners in these two prisons are not worse than in other prisons. It is no more difficult to lodge a complaint in one prison than in another. A possible interpretation of the very large number of complaints in Peterhead prison is that it is a mischievous attempt to frustrate the normal working of the prison. The trivial nature of many of the complaints suggests that is true. If it is true, then this persistent use of the complaints procedure damages other prisoners in two ways. It consumes much staff time, which will lead to less staff time being available for normal prisoner contact, and may lead to prisoners being locked up. And it is likely to inhibit other prisoners from raising genuine complaints, for fear of being associated with the persistent complainers. The prison complaints system is a very important part of the protection of the rights of prisoners and it must be defended. So when it is abused it is a serious matter. A way of restricting persistent and trivial complaints, without inhibiting the right of prisoners to make complaints should be found.

1.11 Among the matters which are of most concern to prisoners in terms of their conditions and treatment, this report makes positive comment in four areas. The food consistently receives high marks in the SPS Prisoner Survey; it is served hot, the portions are quite adequate and the menu is varied - although it does not contain enough fruit and vegetables and prisoners have little option but to eat in their cells.

1.12 The arrangements for visits are very good within the limitations imposed. That is, those prisoners who receive visits have access to frequent visits (this is because many sex offenders receive no visits, or only very few), and the atmosphere in the visit room is good. But the waiting arrangements for visitors are very poor. They were very poor at the time of the last report, and they have not changed.

1.13 The use of drugs in Peterhead is very limited. This is a significant factor in the absence of violence and in the relaxed atmosphere in the visit room.

1.14 Relationships between staff and prisoners are good.

1.15 The inspection report of 2004 said The uncertainly over the future of the prison is also as great as ever. It is not simply that managers and staff and prisoners are no more clear now than they were one year ago about what will happen: it is also that the uncertainty itself has had one more year to have its effect. Now the demoralising effect of uncertainty has had another year to work. A consultation period about the future of Peterhead came to an end in November 2005: there has been no announcement. But even when a decision is made, slopping out, unless something is done now, will continue for a long time.