Inspectors find Maghaberry Prison ‘unsafe and unstable’

Report notes leadership deficit, with one chief inspector labelling prison Dickensian

Maghaberry houses about 1,000 prisoners, some of them on remand. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

Maghaberry houses about 1,000 prisoners, some of them on remand. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

 

A damning report published on Thursday has found that the high-security Maghaberry prison in Co Antrim is in “crisis” and is “unsafe and unstable” for prisoners and staff

The comprehensive report carried out jointly by Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland and Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales, is the most critical ever published about a prison in the North.

“What we found was a highly complex prison that was in crisis and it is our view that the leadership of the prison had failed to ensure it was both safe and stable,” said Mr McGuigan and Mr Hardwick.

It was like something Charles Dickens would write about, added Mr Hardwick.

More than 20 inspectors from the North’s criminal justice inspectorate, the British inspectorate of prisons, the regulation and quality improvement authority and the education and training inspectorate visited Maghaberry over two weeks in May this year to carry out the unannounced inspection.

“We had real concerns that if the issues identified in this report – which were brought to the attention of the prison leadership at a frank feedback session at the end of the inspection – were not addressed as a matter of urgency, serious disorder or loss of life could occur,” said Mr Hardwick.

“This was a concerning inspection of a prison which was as bad as any we have seen in recent years,” he added.

He said conditions were akin to a Victorian jail and he had never seen a more dangerous prison environment. “This is one of the worst prisons I’ve ever seen and the most dangerous prison I’ve been to . . . Dickens could write about Maghaberry without batting an eyelid,” he added.

Maghaberry houses about 1,000 prisoners, some of them on remand. About 50 are republican and loyalist paramilitary inmates held in separated quarters, with the majority of them dissident republicans.

The chief inspectors found that levels of assaults and rates of self-harm at Maghaberry had increased. They were told a great deal of bullying and incidents of physical violence were going unreported.

Staff morale within the prison was described as low at the time of the inspection with some staff members subject to credible threats.

“The risk and impact of threats and acts of intimidation cannot be seen in isolation from the challenges faced by the leadership and staff of the prison service in managing the separated units, which consumes a disproportionate amount of management attention” said Mr McGuigan.

“Giving preference to maintaining the regime for separated prisoners over every other area in the prison is unfair and has a negative impact on more than 900 men who make up the majority of the prison population,” he added.

“This position is untenable and a radical new approach is now required. To assist with this process we recommend that should it remain necessary to manage the separated units in this way, their location, management, and resources should be treated as stand alone to that of the main prison,” said Mr McGuigan.

The chief inspectors said more prisoners than before had reported feeling unsafe. Illegal and prescription drugs were also more widely available than in March 2012 when the prison was last inspected.

They added that staff absence was high which led to frequent and unpredictable disruption to the daily regime for many prisoners. This situation had a “negative impact” on relationships between prisoners and staff.

The inspectors also found substantial numbers of prisoners were spending long periods of time locked up in their cells, limiting access to education, showers, opportunities to make telephone calls to family and friends and carry out everyday domestic tasks. “This situation was frustrating for prisoners and contributed to the overall instability of the prison,” they said.

Stability

The chief inspectors also highlighted their concern around health care provision “which was impinging on the prison’s ability to function effectively”.

“Inspectors were very concerned that aspects of health care provision had deteriorated since the previous inspection. In our view it was falling short and not meeting the complex needs of the prison population,” they said.

They also expressed anxiety about a deliberate fire at Maghaberry’s Erne House, which holds “regular” prisoners, in April “which had the potential to cause death or serious injury”. They recommended urgent action be taken to strengthen leadership and called for the circumstances and response to the fire to be subject to an independent review.

The inspectors said they would return in January 2016 to carry out a further inspection to assess the impact of the work under way and progress against the inspection recommendations. “It will only be at this point following an impartial assessment that our concerns may be allayed,” said Mr McGuigan.

Alliance Minister for Justice David Ford said improvements have taken place at the prison since the May inspection. “Although there have been many significant developments brought about by the prison reform programme the conclusions of the inspection team show the scale of the challenge. Maghaberry is a very complex prison,” he added.

Sue McAllister, director general of the North’s prison service, said the report was disappointing. “The snapshot taken in May demonstrated that Maghaberry had been greatly affected by staff absence which had a serious impact on the regime and outcomes for prisoners,” she said.

That has been addressed through robust management of attendance while supporting staff, recruitment of new officers and through redeployment from the other prisons. Since May, sickness levels have fallen sharply which means more officers on the landings and a more progressive and settled regime,” added Ms McAllister.