Northern Ireland news

ANALYSIS: 'Dickensian' prison needs top-down reform

Justice minister David Ford, Prison Service general director Sue McAllister and Maghaberry governor Phil Wragg

Anyone who has ever had to visit Maghaberry prison will tell you it's a bleak and desolate place.

Northern Ireland's only top-security jail looks exactly as you would imagine - grey, cold and oppressive - and for the greater part the general public tend not to care.

Criminals don't score that highly when it comes to attracting public sympathy.

But leaving aside the fact that the court-ordered removal of a person's liberty is the punishment, and no civilised nation should then torture its prisoners, either physically or mentally, the situation at Maghaberry is dangerously unsustainable.

The inspection report on the Co Down facility paints a picture of a prison barely functioning, with Dickensian conditions that are dangerous not just for inmates but also staff.

In recent years there have been a number of deaths in custody of vulnerable prisoners who have taken their own lives.

Highly-critical prisoner ombudsman reports into the deaths of terminally ill inmates have also highlighted inadequate medical care.

The problems in Maghaberry are a combination of the legacy of Northern Ireland's past and a slow pace of reform that should have brought the facility up to modern standards but has failed miserably.

Attempts to implement change have in the past been met with open hostility from prison officers entrenched in a security footing, with a mainly white, male, Protestant workforce unreflective of society.

Efforts to change this demographic have moved slowly. Many new recruits have left after a short period of time, the demands of working long hours in such challenging conditions proving too much.

Catholic prisoners in the jail continue to be subject to disciplinary procedures and loss of privileges in greater numbers than their Protestant counterparts.

Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspectorate of Prisons in England and Wales, said yesterday that Maghaberry was the worst prison he'd ever visited, and that's certainly not something to be proud of.

Radical reform of Northern Ireland's high security prison should have taken place over a decade ago. As it stands the pace of change is not only slow but this latest inspection has revealed that conditions at the jail actually deteriorated.

Attempting to change systemic failings from the bottom up is never going to work - the Prison Service needs to radically overhaul how Maghaberry is run and that needs to start at ministerial level and a management structure willing to take tough decisions and follow them through.

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