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Situation at Maghaberry unacceptable

Damning reports into Maghaberry prison are sadly nothing new but there had been signs recently that this benighted institution was finally turning the corner.

It is therefore deeply alarming to hear the jail is now, in the words of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the `most dangerous' he had ever seen.

It would be difficult to find a more scathing and frankly disturbing assessment of Maghaberry than that contained in the inspection report published yesterday.

An inspection team which visited in May found a `prison in crisis.'

``Maghaberry had become unsafe and unstable and was in a downward spiral that could have led to serious consequences,'' said Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland.

It is profoundly worrying that a jail which had been the focus of a series of critical reviews and which had made some progress, now appears to have gone backwards.

So what has gone so catastrophically wrong?

The inspectors identified a litany of failings and problems, including prisoners and staff feeling unsafe, unsafe health services, staff shortages causing frustration among inmates, excessive lock down periods and much more.

Such was the concern of the inspection team that an urgent action plan was issued to the prison authorities.

A new governor is now in place and prison service director Sue McAllister said steps were being taken to address some of the issues raised.

No one doubts that managing a prison such as Maghaberry is extremely challenging. The jail houses dissident republican prisoners and there have been ongoing tensions between inmates and staff.

It also has to be remembered that one prison officer, David Black, was brutally murdered by dissidents which undoubtedly has an effect on colleagues.

But the unacceptable situation highlighted by this report, with both staff and inmates living in fear, cannot be allowed to continue.

Inspectors are due to go back to Maghaberry in January. They need to find a much improved picture.

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