Prisoners in North held in solitary confinement not meeting UN standards

Report finds prisoners with mental health illness segregated in supervision units

Some prisoners in Northern Ireland are being subjected to effective solitary confinement which does not meet the expected United Nations Standard Minimum Rules, a new report has found.

The Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) found that prisoners with severe mental health illness and/or challenging behaviours were still being segregated in care and supervision units.

They found that the facilities were inadequate and there were insufficient professional healthcare staff to care for and treat them.

The review was carried out following a request from the North's Minister for Justice Naomi Long after what the report termed as "significant concerns" with raised with her around the operation of care and supervision units within prisons.

Prisoners can be segregated in care and supervision units for their own safety, the safety of others, breaking prison rules, being suspected of having drugs or other illicit items.

Chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland, Jacqui Durkin said some prisoners segregated have severe mental disorders and individual needs which make them more vulnerable, complex and particularly challenging for staff to care for.

“This in-depth review found evidence that the regime experienced by a number of CSU prisoners did not meet the UN standard minimum rules known as the Mandela Rules,” she said.

“We found evidence that prisoners in CSUs were spending too long in their cell without meaningful human contact.

“During our work inspectors met impressive and committed prison officers and health care staff in CSUs who demonstrated compassion for the prisoners and patients in their care while facing complex challenges every day and I commend them all for their efforts.

"But I believe that without appropriate evidence, it is not possible to provide satisfactory assurance to prisoners and their families, the Minister of Justice, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the wider community, that prisoners held in CSUs in Northern Ireland's prisons experienced a regime that met required minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners."

Human contact

Inspectors found meaningful human contact and interactions with prisoners were not sufficiently evidenced or recorded to dispel wider concerns about the length of time prisoners spent in their cells.

Ms Durkin added: "For contact to be 'meaningful' it must extend beyond meeting a prisoner's basic needs such as providing a food tray at a door, asking if they had any requests or wanted a shower."

Inspectors found opportunities for prisoners held in the CSUs to participate in purposeful activity, including learning skills and physical activity, were not proactively encouraged and association with other prisoners was not routinely assessed or provided.

Staff were hindered by the limitations of the present facilities and the Inspection Team identified a clear need for prison officers to be supported with appropriate staff selection procedures and training to improve prisoner outcomes.

Ms Durkin said that despite the Prison Service’s promotion of a corporate ethos of prisoners being treated as “people in our care”, it did not have a strategy in place for the operation and future development of CSUs where some of the most vulnerable people in the prison system live.

“The lack of a clearly defined corporate approach for CSUs, that is promoted by the NIPS leadership and supports the implementation and delivery of consistent, operational practice in each CSU, has hampered opportunities to improve outcomes for segregated prisoners,” she said.


Inspectors also found the shared CSU for young men and women at Hydebank Wood in place at the time fieldwork was undertaken, was out of step with the UN Mandela Rules and HMIP’s specific expectations for women in prison as it did not provide “entirely separate” facilities.

Inspectors have made three strategic and 11 operational recommendations for improvement as a result of their findings.

These have been accepted by the Prison Service.

However Ivor Dunne, chairman of the NI Prison Officers' Association contended the report was "ill-thought out", and said prison officers are not trained mental health professionals.

Describing prisons as having become a “dumping ground for people with mental health issues”.

He described CSUs as the only deterrent for the “most difficult prisoners within the system”, adding they are not used lightly, and pointing out some refuse to leave them.

“It’s an ill-thought out report . . . if the people behind the report had spent a week or two working with the staff on those landings, it might have given them an insight into what the problems would be,” he said.

“It’s a catch-22 situation and prison officers bear the brunt of what goes on but no one wants to know what goes on behind the grey wall until something like this report.

“We’re not there to punish anyone, the punishment is going to prison, and the resources that we have are used to the extreme to rehabilitate.”

Responding to the report, Ms Long said said the Northern Ireland Prison Service has demonstrated a willingness to learn, with the CJI recommendations “set to further improve our prisons”.

“This report sets some significant challenges, however by delivering its recommendations, the Prison Service will continue to improve the important services it delivers,” she said.

Responding to the findings around solitary confinement, the director general of the prison service, Ronnie Armour described parts of the report as being "difficult to read".

He said while he accepted the finding, he wanted to “stipulate very clearly that no one is held within any of our prisons in severe degradation or isolation as the term ‘solitary confinement’ suggests”.

“Every cell door is opened every day, on several occasions, and no-one goes without contact with staff or prison healthcare teams.

“But we can do better.

“And we will do better and we have already addressed the key findings in this report,” he said.

“It is important to state that today across our three prisons, no-one is being held in solitary confinement as described in this report.”

Mr Armour also welcomed recognition in the report of the challenges faced in the Prison Service, adding: “The Prison Service is often required to manage those that no-one else in society has been able to.” – PA