AN ELDERLY man is adding the finishing touches to a beautiful doll’s house he has been building. It is exactly the kind of toy a girl would cherish. With a hammer and chisel, he painstakingly carves brickwork detail onto the walls. It has a set of steps up to a big front door, an attic and even a basement. It might be ready in time for Christmas.
But this is not a scene from the toy shop of a skilled craftsman. This is Peterhead Prison, one of Scotland’s most notorious jails, and the elderly man is a convicted sex offender, one of hundreds of despised criminals who live behind its razor-wire fence.
The rapists, sex attackers and paedophiles are allowed to make doll’s houses and other wooden toys. For the perpetrators of such ugly crimes, they create objects of remarkable beauty, which are given to their families as presents or sold to prison staff.
In other sex-offender prisons in England, such creations are expressly forbidden because of the fear it could encourage the men to use their skills as a ploy to groom children. Ian Gunn, governor of Peterhead, thinks that is far-fetched.
"I don’t see it as a problem," he said. "It gives the men a chance to learn how to do intricate skilled work. My role is to encourage sex offenders to change their behaviour and stop."
Gunn, a sharp-suited former bank manager, has allowed Scotland on Sunday access to Peterhead in an attempt to demonstrate how the jail has progressed in the two years since it was saved from closure.
He said: "What we offer prisoners here is a safe environment. In a normal prison, they would be targeted. Here there is still a hierarchy between those who have raped adults and those who have committed crimes against children. But that does not present itself in a way that means anyone needs protection from anyone else."
But despite the relaxed atmosphere of the workshop, Peterhead remains an oppressive place.
If the editor of a red-top newspaper was allowed to design the perfect place in which to ‘cage’ the nation’s most feared ‘beasts’ and throw away the key, this is what he or she might come up with.
Created by the Victorians, and designed by them to be harsh, the jail is perched on a cliff overlooking the North Sea and is often hidden from view by haar.
Most of its 300 inmates still ‘slop out’. The cells are cramped and inmates live in vast halls that smell of stale body odour and unchanged beds. It is a place where the clang of metal doors and the din of shouting men reverberate around three storeys of open landings.
But its Victorian creators are long dead and throwing away the key is no longer an option. The aim of a Peterhead sentence is less about punishment and more about preventing future rapes and attacks. Most people agree that for Peterhead to do that successfully, it needs an environment as modern as its thinking.
Threatened with closure but saved following a huge public campaign, Peterhead’s long-term future hangs in the balance while politicians, local campaigners and criminologists thrash out plans for a modern replacement.
For now, rehabilitation is Gunn’s main goal. Peterhead runs a world-renowned treatment scheme for sex offenders, the STOP programme. It trains the men to call a halt to their deviant thoughts. The details are a closely guarded secret and not even the governor is allowed into group sessions. But it involves small, hand-picked groups of up to 10 men discussing the intimate facts of their crimes and examining their attitudes towards their victims with psychologists.
Although there is no ‘cure’, there is a consensus that some can learn to control their urges in the same way that an alcoholic stays sober.
To get on to STOP, the offender has to admit he has done something wrong - a criterion that immediately disqualifies two-thirds of the prison population. Many of the men apparently insist they are innocent or ‘minimise’ their crime by claiming it was not as bad as the court made out.
As far as Gunn is concerned, the men are guilty and more need to be encouraged to face up to their crimes. STOP has suffered a series of staff resignations over the past few years that meant resources were so thin the number of men completing the course dropped to just 14 last year. This year’s target is 50.
He said: "We are hopeful we will make the target. But we want to increase the number of men eligible for STOP, and one way of doing that will be to set up Prisoner Champions, who are men who have successfully completed the course. They will be trained to talk to the other inmates to explain how it works."
So far, one of the biggest gaps in Peterhead’s rehabilitation process has been that there is no opportunity for sex offenders to test the theory before release, because, unlike other prisoners, they have not been allowed to take part in outside work programmes or special escorted leave.
However, this is all set to change dramatically. The move has sparked huge alarm, but Gunn insists it is better to test the men under supervision before their release. He said: "There are a number of things we are looking at for men who have completed the treatment programmes and are assessed as low-risk."
Perhaps the most controversial of the plans will eventually involve private security firm Reliance, which has come under fire for a series of blunders, including the accidental release of a convicted murderer.
Under the Scottish Prison Service’s contract with the firm, it will take over the special escorted leave scheme, under which prisoners are allowed to go to a specified address - either their home or a public place - for a two-hour visit accompanied by an officer.
"My view is that it does not matter where the person is. We should be doing more to prepare them for release," he said.
"What we are also trying to do is establish a scheme whereby prisoners will leave and go out into the community, on work placements or to college, in groups or individually.
"There have been some adverse reactions from local councillors. I am not kidding myself it won’t be difficult. What I want to stress is that our risk-assessment procedures are very, very robust.
"How do we prepare people for the outside world when some of them have been in prison for years? I believe it is right to test people in normal conditions."
Gunn says he was sent to Peterhead originally to close it down. Instead, he has found himself as its unexpected champion.
Ministers are still considering whether to build a new, much larger facility, possibly in the Central Belt, where most inmates come from. It could accommodate 500 inmates - every sex-offence prisoner in Scotland - removing some who are currently held at special facilities in other jails.
However, that, if it happens at all, is many years away. In the meantime, Gunn is determined to run the jail efficiently and try to prevent his inmates raping again when they are released.
"My job is to keep this place going and keep delivering," he said. "We must not lose sight of what we are here to do: reduce the number of future victims."
HIGH PROFILE INMATES
PETERHEAD prison houses some of Scotland’s most notorious sex attackers and killers.
They include the ‘limbs in the loch’ killer William Beggs, who got life in 2001 for raping, killing and dismembering 18-year-old supermarket worker Barry Wallace. Some of the body parts were found in Loch Lomond and at Troon.
It is also home to Angus Sinclair who was found guilty of raping and murdering a Glasgow teenager two decades after the crime.
Robert Moffat, right, another inmate, was jailed for six years in 2000 for raping a 13-year-old girl. He has continually protested his innocence and complained about conditions at Peterhead.
Moffat petitioned the Scottish Parliament last year claiming that his human rights were being breached by the lack of night sanitation at the jail.
John Callison of Penicuik, Midlothian, was jailed for eight years in April, 2002, for a 10-year catalogue of abuse against two girls and a boy between 1967 and 1977.
Convicted child sex abuser Reg Carruthers was jailed for 10 years in 1998 for a catalogue of abuse against children dating back to the 1970s. He has refused to go on the prison’s STOP programme for the rehabilitation of sex offenders and has also complained about his rights in the prison.