New community units for women prisoners will look like flats, without high walls, barred windows or barbed wire, a leading prison governor has revealed.

Rhona Hotchkiss, governor of Cornton Vale women's prison, said female offenders housed in at least five new custodial units would do their own cooking and laundry and could be free to come and go to local leisure facilities such as gyms, or to attend work placements.

She said each of the new units would be able to hold up to 20 women and will probably be newly built, designed around the needs of women who have suffered trauma and to promote good family contact.

Speaking at a meeting of the Scottish Association for the Study of Offending in Glasgow, she added: "Really importantly, because these units will be in the community, they have to have minimal visible security. So they won't have high walls, they won't have barbed wire, they won't have bars on the window, they will not look like prisons."

Each unit would have a mother and child area and children would be able to come and visit and stay overnight to help build family links she said. "They'll all be in small flatted units, they'll all be cooking for themselves, they'll be doing their own cleaning, their own washing, able to wander about, confined only within the perimeter of the building and only at the times that are appropriate," she said. "It is our hope that after a short period of assessment when women come into community custody units, they will be going out. They will be going out to access health services, they will be going to access social work services, they will be going out to access work placements, they might be going home for a visit, they will be using leisure facilities and so on in the community."

The detail gives the clearest idea yet of what is being planned by the Scottish Prison Service for the women's prison estate, after justice secretary Michael Matheson announced a major u-turn last June, scrapping plans for a 300-capacity new women's prison HMP Inverclyde on a site near Greenock.

The planned new jail - larger than Scotland's existing women's prison, HMP Cornton Vale, was seen as contrary to policies on reducing the number of women in prison, but acquiring and preparing the site cost £7.8m which the Scottish Government had to write off.

Now Cornton Vale, which is seen as outdated and unfit for its purpose, is to be demolished and a new prison built on it site with room for 80 of Scotland's more dangerous women who are seen as presenting a danger to the public and need to be held in more secure conditions. Ms Hotchkiss said its name would be changed as too many "bad images and bad experiences" were linked with it.

Meanwhile five or more community custodial units are planned for locations yet to be decided. Reporting on Ms Hotchkkiss' comments, Holyrood magazine said sites might be chosen according to the postcodes from where the majority of women offenders hail.

Ms Hotchkiss said some local communities might be resistant to having units opened near them but claimed politicians from all parties had backed the change of direction on women's jails. "There was a huge coalition around the announcement to not proceed with Inverclyde. Almost every politician in the Scottish parliament thought that was the right thing to do," she said.

"When we open these community units we need them all to stand up and stand beside us and say 'this is the right thing to do'."

Michael Matheson is likely to discusse the plans on Tuesday, when he is due to address the Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee about progress on implementing the findings of the government's commission on women offenders. A model design for the new custody units is expected to be published in a matter of weeks.

A spokesman for the SPS said some operational details had not been finalised, and would still need to be agreed with partners, adding: "Since the decision not to go ahead with HMP Inverclyde, we have been looking at dealing with women in custody in different ways. We recognise there is still a need for discussion and further consultation with community providers, health care providers, local authorities and others."