Vulnerable prisoners at risk in Maghaberry, says watchdog

Brendan McGuigan calls for action to tackle level of suicide and self-harm at NI prison

A prisons watchdog has expressed concern about the care and support provided to vulnerable prisoners held at Maghaberry prison in Northern Ireland.

Since 2012 11 prisoners have taken their lives at Maghaberry. Now a report from Brendan McGuigan, the chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland, has called for action to tackle the level of suicide and self-harm at Maghaberry, which houses about 900 inmates.

“I am concerned that despite the critical reports into deaths in custody and serious self-harm, some important lessons have not been learnt,” said Mr McGuigan following an unannounced review of Maghaberry by a multi-disciplinary team of prison inspectors.

“This prison does not provide the therapeutic environment that is required for prisoners with complex needs, and the courts should be aware of these limitations when committing people to prison for mental health assessments,” he said.


“The management and delivery of effective Northern Ireland Prison Service care plans for some men assessed to be at risk of suicide and self-harm remained unacceptable and requires urgent attention,” added Mr McGuigan.

“Despite a reduction in the overall number of men self-harming within the prison, inspectors had significant concerns around the management and care of men who had or were at risk of self-harming,” he said.

Major review

In 2015 a major review of Maghaberry found that it was “unsafe and unstable” and “in crisis”. A subsequent review in 2016 pointed to significant improvements in the prison regime and, according to Tuesday’s report based on the recent unannounced visit, these improvements were continuing.

“I welcome the drive, determination, innovation and creativity shown by the leadership team and staff to stabilise the prison, to improve outcomes for those committed to their care and implement the nine recommendations made two years ago,” said Mr McGuigan.

“However, this positive work and the desire to deliver a more stable, safe environment for prisoners and staff must ensure the needs of vulnerable prisoners are addressed,” he added.

Mr McGuigan said the day-to-day operation at Maghaberry was more stable and reliable with fewer restrictions around movement and activity.

There are more than 40 dissident and loyalist paramilitary prisoners held in Maghaberry. Republicans are held in Roe House and loyalists in Bush House. In the past decade there have been a number of protests at Roe House with tensions frequently raised. Two prison officers were murdered in dissident attacks outside Maghaberry in the past five years: David Black in 2012 and Adrian Ismay in 2016.

‘Significant challenge’

This latest review stated that “managing the separated units in the middle of Maghaberry remained a significant challenge and inevitably impacted on other areas of the prison”.

“However, maintaining the regimes on these units was continuing to have much less of an impact on other men at the prison than previously, and in the first quarter of this year, curtailments and lockdowns across the prison were much reduced,” it added.

The review stated that prisoners at Roe House complained “about poor access to education and cultural activities”.

Ronnie Armour, head of the North's prison service, said significant progress has been made at Maghaberry in the past two years. He said, however, that vulnerable prisoners presented a real challenge.

“There is also now a wider recognition in judiciary and inspectorate that the criminal justice system is not equipped to deal with people who suffer mental health difficulties. This is not an issue which the prison service can resolve alone but we can and will contribute to work as recommended by the inspectors,” he added.

“All steps will continue to be taken to ensure that those prisoners in Maghaberry who are at risk of self-harm, suicide or otherwise vulnerable are managed and supported effectively,” said Mr Armour.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times