HMP Peterhead has an ignominious reputation. But what is life inside the prison that holds some of Scotland’s most reviled offenders really like?
It is disarmingly childlike, the small single bed with its Manchester United duvet cover and Playstation controller on the pillow. A television sits in the corner surrounded by bottles of soft drink. But this is no young child’s room.
On the desk there’s an exercise book containing small neat rows and columns of figures with occasional annotations. It’s a record of income and expenditure. The sums are pathetically small, the few pounds spent on the juice and chocolate visible, toothpaste, other sundries. And the tables stretch back not just weeks and months, but years. Into the previous century.
This is the cell of a sex offender at HMP Peterhead prison. The man who lives inside it has committed a terrible offence, been tried and convicted and is now serving a very long sentence. Yet as the cell shows, he eats and washes and sleeps, just like the rest of us. He follows a football team. He likes to relax by playing video games. He’s careful with his money.
On the surface, he’s just like you and me.
And one day he will be released back into society. That is what makes him so complex and dangerous.
Pamela Macdougall leads one of the psychology teams at Peterhead. An attractive young woman, she seems like a character from a thriller brought to life.
The prison itself has a similar quality, an imposing 19th century facility set on a headland that juts out in to the swelling grey North Sea.
A key part of the rehabilitation work the inmates undergo – and all 306 men currently housed at Peterhead have chosen to take part in the specialised sex offender treatment programme, those who refuse to do so serving their sentences in HMP Dumfries – involves discussing their offending behaviour in group situations overseen by a trained professional like Macdougall.
“Sitting in group when you hear them going through their offending behaviour, I think before you go into the group room, you have read their files and you’ve read the indictment and what they’ve done and I think it really hits home that they’re the person sitting there right in front of you.
“To start with, that was a real initial shock factor but I have been here so long I have become accustomed to it. But when you hear some of them disclosing some of the things they’ve done that haven’t been reported before, it has real shock value, as does the really violent and sadistic crime.
They are the ones that really hit home,” she says.
Macdougall then goes on to describe the tortuous paradox at the heart of dealing with sex offenders. Being a trained professional, she cannot subscribe to the tabloid notion that the men she works with are evil by nature, or somehow less than human, beasts. But she does admit that some do seem to be beyond treatment, at least in the time she has with them.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that I view them as being born bad, I would say they enjoy their offending behaviour so much they don’t want to change. I have come across a handful that are like that. They are a minority. It is just because they enjoyed what they were doing so much and that is a hard one to deal with, especially when you know they are going to be released.
“I had a recent example at the end of last year and I knew the guy was going and I could pretty much have said he would reoffend. He was in for sexually assaulting his aunt and when I was interviewing him he was disclosing all this other offending behaviour and when he was away to be released I did a report on it and I could have put money on it that he would reoffend but there was nothing we could do because it was his sentence expiry date.
He ended up committing another offence and he’s actually waiting to be charged with it. If they really want to, they are going to continue to do it.” And that is what is so troubling about walking around Peterhead. Some of these men committed horrendous crimes, enjoyed doing it and would do it again, given a chance. Being given the guided tour by Governor Mike Hebden, the place is visibly different from other prisons. For a start, the population is noticeably older. This reflects the nature of many sex offenders, who are often not caught for many years.
In addition, the average age has been pushed up by the increase in convictions for what is termed historical abuse – offences committed years, even decades ago, but only prosecuted recently, meaning the offenders are often well into middle age, or even elderly, when incarcerated.
The other thing you notice is that Peterhead is much quieter than other prisons. Where places like Barlinnie sounds more like a football match with continual shouting and announcements over the tannoy, Peterhead is almost silent. Hebden says this is borne out in the wider atmosphere of the jail.
Violent incidents, attacks on staff and incidents between prisoners, are rare, far lower than in other jails. There is little drug use and no gang culture.
But this does not mean the prisoners are benign. Far from it. It is just that instead of using physical force to gain advantage, they use their brains. Just as the majority of sex offenders will plot and manipulate to create the situations in which they can commit their crimes and then use similar tactics to keep their victims from speaking out, so they use similar tactics once locked up.
A key concern for staff is that prisoners will learn what they are expected to say while undergoing the treatment programme and make every effort to appear to be complying and ‘getting better’ in order to hasten their release date so they can offend again.
“There is definitely that. They learn the group language and what they are ‘supposed’ to be saying and what we try and do is use other sources to try and see if what they are saying is true and if their behaviour actually is changing or whether there is something else going on there,” says Macdougall.
That’s where an officer like Dale Galley comes in. Galley helps facilitate group sessions but also ensures that prisoners’ behaviour is constantly monitored and cross-referenced.
“It’s very difficult to keep an act up 24/7,” he says, “They might learn what they think we want to hear and they will say, ‘I have changed, I’ve realised this about myself’ but then you can say back to them, ‘Well, in the halls you’ve been seen engaging in some pretty questionable behaviour with some of the other guys’, you can challenge that, tell them they are only kidding themselves.” To aid this, all group sessions are taped by a discreet CCTV camera.
Galley says the treatment programme – which has been remodelled and will be rolled out in a new modular form in coming months that allows for inmates to give greater focus to certain areas – is based on a cognitive behaviour therapy model.
“It is about getting them to think through the circumstances that led up to their offending, of why they committed that offence. Did you really ‘subconsciously’ walk past that school every day or was it something more than that, something a bit more conscious than you’re admitting?” he says.
The vast majority of offenders first attempt to deny what they did, then they try and blame the victim and finally, once they have accepted their guilt, attempt to minimise the impact of their crime.
The challenge for people like Galley and Macdougall is to continue that path to a point where the offender recognises not only that they did commit a horrific offence that has damaged the victim’s life, often irreparably, but to learn why they did it and develop strategies to prevent them from reoffending when they are released, because apart from 11 men on Orders of Lifelong Restriction, every single inmate in Peterhead will be released back into the community at some point.
I meet some prisoners briefly while walking through the halls with Hebden.
Unlike in normal prisons where inmates are often quick to engage with a visiting journalist, often with some banter, these men are more reserved, clearly assessing the situation, ensuring they don’t say the wrong thing in front of the Governor.
The conversation is brief and reveals little yet still manages to be deeply unsettling.
It sounds like a terrible cliché, but I can actively sense the three men’s eyes on my back as I walk out of the cell where they have been smoking and watching television prior to our arrival.
Change is afoot at the prison. Peterhead as a dedicated facility for sex offenders is closing and the building will be knocked down, a new one built and its capacity and catchment merged with Craiginches prison in Aberdeen to become HMP Grampian.
The Scottish Prison Service (SPS) has yet to outline whether sex offenders will be held in another dedicated facility like Peterhead, or perhaps spread across the wider prison estate, but with current thinking on managing offenders holding that inmates should be housed as close to home as possible, and the majority of sex offenders, like all offenders, coming from the Central Belt, it will be safe to assume that at the very least, it will not be a facility as remote as Peterhead.
And as Hebden, a man who started his career in the prison service at Peterhead in the days when it housed the nation’s toughest and most disruptive inmates– “It was a very mentally and physically challenging place to work,” he says with dry understatement – notes, both HMP Edinburgh and Barlinnie in Glasgow already house sex offenders serving short-term sentences of four years or less while Polmont houses young offenders convicted of sex offences.
“People are under the impression that Peterhead is the only sex-offender site and that is not the case and hasn’t been for some time. It is the main sex-offenders site for long-term sex offenders. There are roughly 600 sex offenders in the system at any time, it varies, and half of them would be here. We’re the largest site but not the only site,” he says.
Hebden acknowledges the concern that altering what had previously been considered a world leading practice – that of housing sex offenders in a dedicated site run like a mainstream jail with a clear focus on treatment – comes with some risks.
“It is a concern that has been raised in a number of forums previously and it would have been a concern perhaps five or six years ago but because of the success that Peterhead has had in managing sex offenders, we have taken that best practice and developed it at other sites.
“So we have a level of expertise and experience in working with sex offenders and treating sex offenders across the estate now. It isn’t just a one-stop shop. We are far more comfortable that the risk can be managed. There is still a risk with the movement of prisoners regardless of type or offence.
“The main risk for us is a drop in the service provided, a cut off whereby when we cut off here it doesn’t start somewhere else. Our plans need to make sure that as we run down we run up so that at no point is the safety of the public put at risk by the failure of us to treat or securely contain and manage the risk of convicted sex offenders and we are well aware of that. I have no concerns about that.
He continues: “This move has been hanging over our heads since about 2000 when it was initially mooted that the prison would close. At that point, sex offenders were very much against [it] because they feared being put back into a mainstream setting so they really want to stay here because of the quality of life here – it is a mainstream prison for sex offenders, they don’t have separate regimes, they don’t have to go to separate locations, separate work sheds, their visitors aren’t under the same pressure they would be. They feared they would lose a lot.
“But as an organisation we have matured a lot since then in the management of sex offenders and we don’t have the same issues at Edinburgh and Barlinnie and Polmont we used to have in the way in which sex offenders are perceived. The fear of going somewhere else and being marginalised or victimised is greatly reduced.
“They go there for visits occasionally, they have come to us from there once they are sentenced. I think they know and trust the SPS to ensure, regardless of where they are, they will receive appropriate treatment and will be safe.” This is the hallmark of the staff at Peterhead. In a society where sex offenders, especially those who commit crimes against children, are widely held to be the lowest of the low, they conduct themselves with ultimate professionalism at all times.
I ask Macdougall if she has had any disturbing experiences in her time working with these men and she recounts a truly unpleasant anecdote: “In one of my experiences in group, a guy actually committed a sexual offence while I was in group. That was directed at me, he was masturbating on his pocket.
It was one of those moments where because I’ve worked here for so long I’ve always thought I can deal with absolutely anything and I know how to deal with anything but I felt a bit frozen. The guy had committed really violent offences as well and I was a bit like, I’m not really sure how to challenge this. That was the first time I’ve ever felt like ‘what on Earth do I do’?” But she stresses this was the only time an incident of that nature occurred and then describes the men in a way most observers would struggle to comprehend but reflects the reality of these people, that for all the hideous crimes they have committed, are still indeed human beings and that our challenge as a society is to balance their crimes against that innate reality.
She says: “I have built a good relationship with quite a lot of the guys I have worked with. I get to see the other side of them other than their offending, I get to see the good side, the ones with great personalities, really funny. It is those little elements that people wouldn’t really pick up on and I see.”