The first thing that hits you when you walk into His Majesty’s Prison Aberdeen also known as HMP Craiginches, is how it feels neither majestic or penal.
After being buzzed in through the heavy locked doors staff behind the thick glass divider laugh and joke before handing a security pass. Another locked door stands in the way of the visitor’s seating area.
Inside the waiting area a prisoner with the obligatory green joggers and jumper sweeps the patterned floor slowly. More staff are buzzed in and out laughing and speaking loudly to their colleagues.
The Deputy Governor’s office sits at the top of winding dark stairs. He talks about a new scheme which will see around six women come back to Aberdeen prison to live in the female quarters which have been empty since 2005.
The scheme is “innovative” says Deputy Governor Stephen Coyle who is in his first year at the prison.
He says: “It’s a community integration unit for female prisoners who are coming to the end of their sentences and they are having to resettle back in the north east.”
It will involve collaboration from the community, social workers, prison workers and other agencies.
It is hoped the females will be given work placements to attend during the day before coming back to their quarters in the evening.
The scheme stems from a Scottish Government equality report which came out last year on the equity of access of services to all prisoners.
Mr Coyle says: “It was quite clear there were some issues. The females were not getting the same access as the male prisoners were. This is a step to address that.”
Male low risk prisoners are given more community integration opportunities in Scotland’s open prisons like HMP Castle Huntly near Dundee
HMP Cornton Vale, near Stirling, is the only prison in Scotland where females can be taken.
Mr Coyle says that the scheme which is due to be introduced at HMP Inverness as well as Aberdeen is a “test bed” for HMP Grampian, the new prison being built near Peterhead.
HMP Grampian is due to be open in 2014 and will hold 500 prisoners, male and female.
Scottish Government Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill spoke out last year in response to a damning inspection of HMP Aberdeen and said that the new jail is part of a “record £120million a year capital investment” and it will replace the “inadequate facilities at Aberdeen and Peterhead”.
He added: “But until that new facility is up and running it is important that HMP Aberdeen operates as well as it can.”
Perhaps this explains why money is being invested in re-vitalising the female unit at HMP Aberdeen, a prison that is due to close in four years.
Prison based social worker Lauren Bruce thinks the scheme is long overdue.
She says:” Having resources for community integration for males and females is crucial.”
But adds that there will be an “obligation” for criminal justice social workers to work with the prisoners and produce home background reports.
Due to Aberdeen City Council’s financial cuts “right, left and centre” Miss Bruce comments that resources will be more “limited” in the future.
This could create problems for the 206 prisoners locked up in HMP Aberdeen today (a prison built for around 150 bodies) let alone the women due to arrive in May.
The Deputy Governor, however, says that HMP Aberdeen staff are “flexible” and will cope with the scheme.
He says convincingly: “We’re up for the challenge.”
The smell of fresh paint lingers as estate workers spruce up the female unit which lies near the prison offices outside the wall.
The lilac rooms are nice bar the heavy prison doors. There is a bright day room adjoined to a kitchen area. It looks like a hostel which the Deputy Governor agrees on.
One room has three beds which he says may be used as a mother and baby room in the future if this issue arises.
The females will be given freedom as they will be supervised by closed circuit television, rather than prison officers, and will be given security passes to get in and out.
Mr Coyle says there is already “competition for places”.
Having only been told the plans in December last year things are moving fast.
The mood is one of anticipation but it is clear that there are still some issues to be worked out. Problems will be confronted as or when they arise rather than before.
The experiment may encounter teething problems but is also groundbreaking for female prisoners.
Listen to an interview at the prison: