Northern Ireland news

Prisons chief won't resign over damning Maghaberry report

Brendan McGuigan (left) and Nick Hardwick describe their findings on Maghaberry prison. Picture by Hugh Russell

The head of the Prison Service has said she will not be resigning despite a damning report that branded Maghaberry jail "unsafe and unstable" for inmates and staff.

The high-security prison near Lisburn was found to be in a "state of crisis" in a devastating joint assessment by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI).

Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of CJINI, said it was in a "downward spiral that could have led to serious consequences".

Maghaberry houses almost 1,000 prisoners, including around 50 with loyalist and republican paramilitary affiliations who are held in separated accommodation.

Inspectors who carried an unannounced visit in May identified a series of serious failings in the regime that had fostered a volatile atmosphere, with the prison said to be on the verge of a major incident.

In 2012 long-serving officer David Black was shot dead by dissident republicans as he drove to work and some prison staff told inspectors they felt under threat, with the report noting that "serious and credible threats had been made".

A month before the inspection, prisoners set fire to a storehouse, damaging an adjoining accommodation block at Erne House where other inmates were locked in cells.

Inspectors said the blaze almost resulted in fatalities and called for a separate investigation.

A number of prisoners have since lodged civil proceedings against the Prison Service, claiming they were left locked in smoke-filled cells rather than being evacuated from the block.

For the first time ever inspectors felt the need to issue an "urgent action plan" to prison authorities in the immediate wake of the inspection.

In another unprecedented move, they are to return for a follow-up visit in January to ensure recommendations are followed through. Follow-ups are usually conducted two to three years after inspection.

Inspectors were particularly critical of the management regime within Maghaberry.

Two months after the inspection, the governor Alan Longwell left his post. He was replaced by former governor of HMP Belmarsh in south London, Phil Wragg, who has been brought in to troubleshoot at the facility.

The report noted that care of vulnerable prisoners was inadequate, with high levels of suicide and self-harm. Health services had deteriorated and some aspects were unsafe.

Speaking to the Irish News yesterday, one recently released prisoner said it wasn't unusual for sick and vulnerable prisoners to be handed a week's worth of medication at one time.

"People just take all their tablets in one go, or sell them on. In some cases I've seen the wee weak ones threatened and have their medication taken off them," the west Belfast man said.

"I've stood and watched people self harm and cut lumps out of themselves, blood everywhere, just to be patched up and locked up again for 23 hours a day.

"If you didn't have mental problems going into Maghaberry you'd certainly have them by the time you got out."

Inspectors also noted that efforts to manage separated wings for paramilitary-linked republican and loyalist prisoners were having a disproportionately negative impact on the rest of the jail.

Nearly all inmates spent too much time in cells with excessive lock down periods.

Maghaberry was the subject of a highly critical report in 2009, but a follow-up inspection in 2012 had identified some improvements. However, Mr McGuigan said progress had gone backwards.

Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales, said he had never seen a more dangerous prison environment.

 

"This is one of the worst prisons I've ever seen and the most dangerous prison I've been to," he said.

"Dickens could write about Maghaberry without batting an eyelid."

Justice Minister David Ford insisted action had already been taken to address the failings.

"Although there have been many significant developments brought about by the prison reform programme, the conclusions of the inspection team show the scale of the challenge," he said.

 

"The appointment of Phil Wragg as governor, and the refreshed experienced senior leadership team put in place at the prison, has already led to improvements in a number of areas, and this will continue."

Prison Service director general Sue McAllister also said last night she will not be resigning.

"I am the right person to lead this service. If I didn't think I was the right person to lead this service I wouldn't be here," she said.

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