Promising start for prison college

28 Oct 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 28 Oct 2016

Minister Sugden: much to ponder

At last some good news for the beleaguered Northern Ireland Prison Service. 

The latest report from Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Prisons for Hydebank Wood is a positive reflection of progress made under governor Austin Tracey.

It demonstrates that with the right leadership failing prison regimes can be turned around. It is important that Justice Minister Claire Sugden studies the report carefully and insists on parallel improvements at the even more troubled Maghaberry Prison.

Hydebank Wood is a challenging regime to run. The entire set up is inappropriate. It combines a prison, now re-branded a college for 18- to 24-year-old men, with a women’s prison. Women prisoners are separately housed but there is inter-action between the two populations.

At their last visit in 2013 the inspectors found a “directionless and demotivated” institution. They were not satisfied that there was sufficient effort being made in reducing violence at the prison; and stated there was “complacency” around incidents of self-harm. A balanced diet was not provided and the curriculum for learning and skills was too narrow and did not meet the needs either of the prisoners or the local workplace.

The condemnation was nothing like as damning as that reserved for Maghaberry last year but was bad enough, especially when you consider the age of the inmates.

The most important task of any prison catering for young people is to help break the cycle of crime by giving them the tools and resources to rehabilitate back into the community and become productive members of society. To fail in this regard is not just failing the inmates, it is failing society too, because it adds both to the cost and damage that criminal behaviour causes. A prison regime that does not heed this degenerates into a university of crime, where the inmates emerge having graduated in advanced offending techniques.

It is therefore heartening to note that this time around inspectors say they have been “encouraged” by the improvement in performance.

This was especially evidenced by the new partnership between Hydebank Wood and Belfast Met which now offers accredited skills and learning courses at the prison-turned-college.  It seems to be early days for this arrangement and the inspectors believe that more needs to be done to align training to potential workplace opportunities.

Teaching quality was good or better in 77% of teaching sessions observed by the inspectors but there was “important areas for improvement” in one quarter, which seems a high figure.

Additionally, the inspectors found: “In most of the construction-related provision there were important areas for improvement identified. The curriculum was not coherently planned and the activities did not give the young men the opportunity to acquire vocational skills and knowledge at the level required in the workplace or to undertake simple home maintenance.”

The inspector’s report gives a snapshot of a prison in transition, moving positively forward, still with problems to resolve but adopting good practice and making progress. This is important and the considerable achievements of staff should be recognised. Hydebank Wood is very much heading in the right direction in so far as it is now focused on trying to equip inmates with the life and technical skills to be able to lead purposeful lives without re-offending.

However, the inspectors found that more than half of offenders had mental health issues and there were double the number with drug and or alcohol problems compared with similar institutions in England and Wales.

This led to the much more disturbing conclusion that at least some of them should not be in prison in the first place.

Peter Clarke said: "Within Ash House many of the women reported experiencing mental health issues, high levels of self-harming behaviour and backgrounds of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse.  We were concerned that given the problems with the female prison population and the high level of young men reporting mental health issues, mental health provision needed to be much better. In some cases, their needs would be best met within a mental health or hospital setting, rather than within the Hydebank Wood site.”

It is important to note that Mr Clarke is not a lily-livered liberal sociology lecturer from one of the former polytechnics. He is Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales. It would be good to think that Justice Minister Claire Sugden has taken careful note of this finding so that the next time he comes calling to inspect one of her prisons he does not find too many more people banged up there who should really be in a hospital.

There is a strong correlation, at least as far as the prison population goes, between drug and alcohol abuse, serious mental ill-health and crime. This is not just a problem for prison officers, it is a problem for health and social services too, and it needs to be addressed. Abuse of prescription, illegal and legal highs is rife at Hydebank as at other prisons and is a frequent cause of violence and bullying. It is telling that prisoners there are even more fearful today than they were during the “bad” inspection of 2013, as is the fact that drugs are now even more readily available. Tackling the complex and inter-linked issues of drug abuse, prison violence and mental ill-health needs to be the next big priority: that is certainly what the inspectors conclude.

The report again raises the very simple question of what on earth Northern Ireland’s female prison is doing in the grounds of a male prison. There is a fundamental need for the women’s part of the prison to be re-housed elsewhere. This was identified by a scathing inspection report back in 2005. Eleven years on women are still being held in Ash House.  Yet despite this being repeatedly pointed out by inspectors from 2005 onwards, there is no sign of this happening, presumably because of the cost involved and the ensuing row about where it might be placed. Male and female prisoners are still transported together to the prison. The inspectors said this was inappropriate, just as their predecessors said 11 years ago. It still goes on.

The report is encouraging. But there’s much more to be done. 

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