Prisoner segregation a 'festering sore' says inspector
SEGREGATING paramilitary inmates is like a "festering sore" on Northern Ireland's troubled prison system, a senior criminal justice inspector has claimed.
Brendan McGuigan said the separated regime for dissident republicans and loyalists at Maghaberry jail was a disproportionate drain on resources that required a radical new approach.
He said: "For the complexity of Maghaberry as it sits itself, and to have at the heart of it a separated regime that you are trying to manage, then it will always be like a festering sore or something that is distracting the management in terms of what needs to happen in the wider prison."
Last week, a damning report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) branded Maghaberry, near Lisburn "a prison in crisis", with "unsafe and unstable" conditions.
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales Nick Hardwick, who was commissioned to assist the CJINI inspection team, said it was the most dangerous prison he had ever seen, likening conditions to a Victorian jail.
Mr McGuigan, who co-authored the report, appeared before Stormont's justice committee to discuss the findings.
He told MLAs the current system was "unfair and untenable".
"The location of separated paramilitary prisoners in Maghaberry was also an issue," said Mr McGuigan.
"They are taking up a disproportionate amount of senior management attention and resources to deliver an unrestricted regime often at the expense of the rest of the prison population.
"This, in our view, is unfair and untenable. We have therefore called for a radical new approach to managing the separated prisoners to ensure the regime in the rest of the prison is less negatively affected."
Maghaberry prison is Northern Ireland's only high-security facility. It accommodates up to 1,000 adult males including on remand and sentenced prisoners and around 50 republican and loyalist paramilitary prisoners are housed in separate wings known as Roe House and Bush House.
Dissident republicans have issued death threats against staff in recent years and in 2012 long-serving officer David Black was shot dead as he drove to work.
A new governor, Phil Wragg, was appointed in August.
DUP MLA Alistair Ross, chairman of the scrutiny committee, said: "We often talk about Maghaberry being one of the most complex prisons in Europe and somewhat unique, but within Great Britain now there are Islamic terrorists being kept within prisons so there are similar sort of challenges one would imagine."
The unannounced inspection was carried out over two weeks in May. It also highlighted problems around the misuse of prescription and illicit drugs, overcrowding, lock-downs and a lack of purposeful activity. A month earlier, a serious incident had unfolded when a number of prisoners set fire to a storehouse, with smoke filling an adjoining accommodation block where other inmates were locked in cells.
Mr McGuigan said the inspectors were taking the unprecedented step of returning to Maghaberry in January to monitor progress.
Sue McAllister, director general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, was also quizzed by the committee.
She expressed disappointment at the damning inspection and claimed swift action was being taken to address concerns.
Ms McAllister, who has dismissed calls for her resignation, said: "We do not make any attempt to defend the findings of the report.
"It was a very disappointing report and we have no intention of underplaying the seriousness of what the inspectors found."
Plans are going ahead to reconfigure Maghaberry into three "mini prisons" including a high-risk facility accommodating separated prisoners, MLAs were told.
Meanwhile Mr Wragg said he was confident inspectors would find improvements when they return in the new year.
He said: "I am confident to say that when the inspection team come back in January they will see a safer, more secure, cleaner establishment that is making progress to be an effective regime for all offenders."