Page last updated at 11:43 GMT, Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Report hits out at vulnerable prisoners' regime

prison bars
The latest inspection was carried out in July and August 2009

Deficiencies remain in the Northern Ireland prison regime, an inspection of the treatment of vulnerable prisoners has found.

Inspectors found the daily regime for vulnerable prisoners had changed little between an inspection in January and a follow-up visit in the summer.

The latest inspection was ordered after the death of prisoner Colin Bell in Maghaberry jail in August 2008.

It found "inconsistent assessment and monitoring of prisoners at risk".

The inspection report was compiled at the request of Northern Ireland Criminal Justice Minister Paul Goggins.

Suicide

It tracked the progress made by the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) in implementing recommendations made in January 2009 by the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland in her report into the death in custody of Colin Bell.

Colin Bell
Colin Bell was found dead in 2008

Another prisoner killed themselves in Maghaberry's healthcare unit in August which lead to the suspension of four members of staff.

Dr Michael Maguire, NI Criminal Justice chief inspector, said the Prison Service had taken action to reduce the risk of suicide in prison cells.

"Staff members have been made aware of the issues arising from the death of Colin Bell, safer custody teams have been introduced and staff training has been improved.

"Yet, despite this positive activity, this report shows there is a continuing gap between the NIPS's stated intention and the delivery on-the-ground of meaningful outcomes for prisoners, especially at Maghaberry Prison, where the majority of prisoners at risk are located," he said.

The report found the Prison Service has worked hard to deliver "the letter of many recommendations" but there is much room for improvement in implementing them in the "spirit" in which they were intended:

  • The small number of the Prisoner Ombudsman's findings which were not implemented were some of the most critical ones;
  • Significant concerns remained about providing a suitable regime for vulnerable prisoners - essential activities such as remedial education, work and social interaction remain in short supply;
  • The Prison Service is better at providing safe custody for compliant prisoners than ones more difficult to manage, such as ones with aggressive traits or mental illness;
  • Official policy on safer custody did not equate to activity on the ground - for example, violence reduction and anti-bullying measures were not given sufficient attention because of the emphasis on suicide prevention;
  • Inspectors met some excellent and committed staff, but many continued to take a cynical attitude and the pace of change was not a swift as they would have expected;
  • The overriding focus was on security, and certain staff remained reluctant to engage with prisoners.

Dr Maguire said inspectors were concerned that, despite the priority given to prisoners at risk, staff at a special facility at Maghaberry still had to fight to ensure resources were not re-allocated elsewhere.

"This is in spite of the fact the prison as a whole, has a high staff-to-prisoner ratio when compared with other prisons," he said.

The Head of the Prison Service, Robin Masefield, said that they had rolled out a new system for supporting prisoners within the last month and had established prisoner forums.

"His report was published on 21 July, this inspection of Maghaberry Prison took place two weeks later ... we are now six months on we have made a good deal of further progress," he said.

He said that further progress would be found in the inspectors next visit and added that the jail dealt with a wide range of offenders.

Maghaberry is currently being run by an acting governor after the last governor Steve Rodford left his job earlier this month.

Mr Rodford, who was apparently under threat from dissident republicans, had been in the post for just five months.



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