Northern Ireland prison system fatalities double in a year

In the last year, six prisoners have died in Maghaberry prison - four of which have been due to suicide or suspected suicide
Andrew Madden

THE number of deaths in the prison system has doubled in the past year.

In 2016 six inmates in Northern Ireland prisons died, compared with just three the previous year.

All but two of the nine deaths in custody in the last two years have been due to suicide or suspected suicide.

So far this year, Northern Ireland’s only maximum-security prison, Maghaberry, has recorded all of the deaths which occurred across the entire system. This represents a three-fold increase in fatalities at the facility compared to 2015.

In the past four years, a total of fourteen prisoners have died in the north’s three prisons: Maghaberry, Hydebank Wood and Magilligan.

On November 30, a 34-year-old remand prisoner became the third fatality in Maghaberry in the space of a month, prompting calls for prison reform from several MLAs.

Just two weeks previously, convicted murderer Barry Cavan took his own life at the high-security facility. He was three years into a 13-year sentence for the killing of 24-year-old busker David Corr in 2013.

On November 5, Belfast man Gerard Mulligan, 44, died by suicide in Maghaberry. He was awaiting trial for the alleged murder of his father in September.

Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann said the statistics reflect the pressure the prison system is under.

"The figures reinforce our concerns that the prison system is suffering as a result of staffing levels, strain on officers, poor morale and insufficient budgets," he said.

"This is having an inevitable impact on prisoners, especially vulnerable ones who suffer from poor mental health and well-being."

In November of last year a joint assessment by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) on Maghaberry was published, branding the facility "a prison in crisis".

Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales who assisted in conducting the assessment, said Maghaberry was one of the worst and most dangerous prisons he had ever been to.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the department of justice said that a new prison suicide and self-harm prevention policy is due to be completed by the end of the year and the health minister's "Protect Life 2" strategy is also geared towards tackling the issue.

"Self-harm and suicide clearly remains a significant concern in custody settings which, by their nature, are likely to be stressful environments particularly for those who have mental health issues and/or emotional vulnerability," they added.

The Irish News has previously reported that half of all prisoners in Northern Ireland are currently self-harming or have a history of self-harm, figures which UUP MLA Doug Beattie called “staggering”.

In response to the recent spate of suicides and incidents of self-harm, justice minister Claire Sugden announced last month that she and health minister Michelle O’Neill were launching a review into vulnerable prisoners.

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