Prison service must address appalling suicide rate at Maghaberry

Despite a series of critical reports and pledges of reform, Maghaberry prison is once again under the spotlight following the deaths of two prisoners within a fortnight.

Barry Cavan from the New Lodge area of north Belfast, who had a history of self-harm, took his own life on Tuesday evening. He had been serving a minimum 13 year term for the brutal murder of his neighbour David Corr, whom he stabbed 39 times in a frenzied attack.

Earlier this month Gerard Mulligan, who was on remand charged with murdering his father, died as a result of suicide.

Maghaberry has had a difficult and tragic history in terms of suicide and self-harm.

One of the most harrowing cases of recent times took place in June 2014 when Sean Lynch gouged out his own eyes and inflicted other serious injuries on himself while prison officers watched.

In September, the Prisoner Ombudsman published a worrying report on the death of Patrick Kelly, who died after overdosing on stockpiled prescription drugs while on remand in February last year.

In that case the report found there was a failure to recognise that Mr Kelly was at risk of self-harm.

There is no doubt that the care and treatment of prisoners with mental health problems is a major challenge for the prison service and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which is responsible for providing healthcare at the jail.

Figures released earlier this year showed that half of Northern Ireland's prisoners have been prescribed medication such as anti-depressants and anti-psychosis drugs.

Inspection reports have highlighted concerns over mental health provision in Maghaberry and the number of suicides and instances of self-harm underline the urgent need to examine how we treat prisoners suffering from mental health issues.

We need to ask if high-security prison is the best place for low-level offenders while proper provision must be made for those convicted of serious crimes.

At the very least staff shortages must be addressed as a matter of urgency.