Shameful, scandalous, time for an independent inquiry

6 Nov 2015 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 13 Nov 2015

David Ford: tetchy response

Scope editor Nick Garbutt on Northern Ireland's "Dickensian" prison.


Maghaberry Prison has just been the subject of the most damning inspector’s report imaginable.

The responses of both director general of the prison service Sue McAllister and her Minister David Ford do not inspire confidence that the systemic failings that have been highlighted for many years are going to be fixed any time soon.

McAllister described the report as an “accurate snapshot” of prison conditions during the inspection, giving the impression that their experience was the penal system’s equivalent of a bad hair day whilst Mr Ford’s tetchy and defensive display on the BBC’s Talkback show and his outburst of temper here


was more suggestive of a man outraged at being questioned by journalists  rather than by the obvious failings of the prison.

The overall line appeared to be that, yes, the inspectors had found bad things at the time of their visit, but their preliminary report was being acted upon and all was now on track.

It is hard to determine whether this is really the attitude of the Minister, his prison service or the result of poor advice from their respective press offices. Either way it was an inadequate response which is unlikely to reassure those who have been tracking the performance of Maghaberry prison over the past decade or so.

Maghaberry is often characterised as a “complex” prison. What is really meant by this is that it caters for a broad range of prisoners.  So there are remand prisoners, segregated republican and loyalist prisoners, convicted killers, men  who have committed serious sexual offences, drug offenders  and those who have been banged up for motoring offences and the non-payment of fines, held on the same site in conditions that inspectors say that Charles Dickens might have recognised.

Illegal drug use is widespread as is violence and bullying. Many inmates have drug and alcohol addictions, mental and physical health conditions are widespread, many too have learning difficulties with the standard of literacy amongst the prison population extremely low. Self harm incidents are frequent and there have been six suicides since 2012.

The regime is also brutal on staff, there have been many complaints of serious intimidation by prisoners, David Black who was murdered by dissident republicans in 2012 was an officer who served in the prison. Absentee rates are very high.

Some of these issues may be addressed by the plans to reconstruct the prison which will see prisoners segregated into three discrete areas, for remand, low to medium risk and high risk inmates.

However despite the fact that we are now in the midst of a prison reform programme, conditions at Maghaberry have gone backwards. Much attention has focused on the shocking findings of the inspectors. One of the most depressing aspects of their report, however, is the section that addresses the recommendations made back in 2012, the list of those that have not been implemented is an even starker indictment of the lack of progress.

Over the years successive teams of inspectors have issued damning reports on the prison. Ironically one of them – the 2008 investigation into the death of Colin Bell who took his own life whilst on suicide watch in Maghaberry - was co-authored by McCallister herself and cited by Ford as one of the reasons she was so well suited to being appointed.

The investigation suggested that officers were watching TV, chatting and smoking and even lying on makeshift beds at the time they were supposed to be monitoring Bell who was recorded on CCTV making a ligature before hanging himself. His body was found 38 minutes after his death.

The inspector’s report of 2012 found evidence of progress at Maghaberry. But the inaction over recommendations and the new findings that the prison is now deemed to be at crisis point have reversed any progress made.

Minister Ford has pointed out that a new management team is now in place and that failings were ascribed by the inspection to the leadership of the prison at the time, which is quite correct.

However that has to be balanced against the fact that there are only three prisons in the Northern Ireland estate: at Hydebank, Magilligan and Maghaberry and raises questions about overall oversight.

Prison is the ultimate sanction available under the law. The punishment is to be deprived of your liberty until the sentence is served.

It should not be a place where bullying is rife, illicit drugs are readily available, and mental health problems are not properly treated. Prison authorities also have a responsibility to help prepare prisoners for their release. This can involve all manner of interventions: from treatment for drug and alcohol problems, teaching basic literacy skills, and dealing with behavioural problems.

The record of violence, intimidation and the tragedy of further suicides and incidents of self-harm is an indictment of the current regime.

Add to that the tragic history of prisons in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and it seems extraordinary that such failings still exist.

Doubtless the prison service is working overtime to put things right before the inspection team returns in January. However given the extent and gravity of the problems inspections, or “snapshots” as McCallister refers to them, are not enough.  A full independent inquiry into the management of Maghaberry from its opening in 1986 is now required.

Prisons are places of punishment and rehabilitation. They should not be hell holes, universities of crime, or modern day bedlams.

We cannot afford for any more people to go into prison for minor, or indeed any offences, and come out in a box.

It is a tragic irony that in Northern Ireland, where a number of our political representatives have themselves spent time behind bars, our main prison should be the subject of such a shocking report.




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