Allison Morris: Locking those with serious mental health problems in a cell is not the answer

Chief Criminal Justice inspector Brendan McGuigan has criticised the use of Maghaberry as a 'safe place' for mentally ill prisoners. Picture by Hugh Russell.

MAGHABERRY prison is a place plagued with problems, and it's not hard to understand why.

The building, which houses sentenced, paramilitary and remand inmates, is unfit for purpose.

Previous inspection reports have described it as a "very worrying and disturbing public institution" saying Charles Dickens could write about Maghaberry "without batting an eyelid".

Scenarios where men serving short periods for defaulting on fines, held alongside those jailed for the most serious of crimes, creates a unique set of challenges.

Maghaberry has gone through many changes in recent years. Many of the prison staff, who were employed during the years of the conflict, were resistant to change.

A redundancy scheme and recruitment drive to make a fresh sweep however has had mixed results, with many of the new recruits leaving after less than a year in the job.

The high turnover of senior governors would appear to show how difficult reforming such an outdated system can be.

Multiple deaths in custody, drug problems among inmates and high level of staff turnover, all add to the significant problems.

The most recent, unannounced, inspection report has found that while conditions have improved in some areas they are still failing badly in others.

The most disturbing criticism is that the jail is being used by the courts as a 'safe place' for people with serious and complex mental health needs.

While the Prison Service bears responsibility for many of the failings in the troubled jail, this is an issue the organisation cannot be expected to deal with alone.

But getting secure beds, in a hospital environment, must be explored at the earliest opportunity.

Locking mentally ill men in a cell 23-hours a day, in an already challenging environment, is clearly not in the best interest of either prisoners or staff.

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