Prisoners in North held in long-term solitary confinement

Figures show 10 Maghaberry inmates held for more than 100 days, one for five years

NI Prisoner Ombudsman, Tom McGonigle, talks about the use of solitary confinement in Northern Ireland's prisons, particularly Maghaberry. One prisoner there has been in solitary for five years and four others for over a year. Video: The Detail


Prisoners were held in solitary confinement for months and even years in the North’s top security Maghaberry Prison despite a call from United Nations’ inspectors for a worldwide ban on more than 15 days.

Figures obtained by Belfast-based investigative news website The Detail show that last year at least 10 prisoners were held in solitary confinement in Maghaberry for more than 100 days each, with four inmates held for more than a year and in one case a prisoner was held for five years.

Those held in solitary can include prisoners with mental health issues, prisoners who are found to be at risk in the general prison population or inmates who have broken prison rules. Some of those held for the longest terms in Maghaberry’s Care and Supervision Units (CSU) were inmates jailed for dissident republican paramilitary offences.

Each of Northern Ireland’s three prison sites (Maghaberry, Hydebank Wood and Magilligan) showed use of long-term solitary confinement. The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) disputes the use of the term solitary confinement to describe the CSU. It says inmates have daily access to showers, a telephone and can spend up to an hour in a small exercise yard or small gym.

The United Nations considers solitary confinement as the physical isolation of individuals who are in their cells for more than 22 hours a day and it has called for a worldwide ban on durations of more than 15 days.

Reacting to The Detail’s findings, Northern Ireland’s Prisoner Ombudsman, Tom McGonigle, raised concerns that inmates with complex mental health needs are among those being held long-term in solitary confinement within Maghaberry prison.

Vicious circle

“Often that leads to the misbehaviour that brings them into solitary and inevitably it becomes a vicious circle whereby their negative behaviour is reinforced by the time they spend there.

“I believe the solitary confinement figures highlight the wider need for co-operation between the Minister of Health and Minister of Justice to look at how mentally disordered offenders are dealt with.”

The Detail sought to compare the Northern Ireland solitary confinement levels with those in the Republic. Monthly figures from the Irish Prison Service show a decrease of 211 prisoners on 22/23-hour lock-up in July 2013 to 74 prisoners in July 2016.

However, officials have failed to release information on how long prisoners are spending in solitary.

Director of campaign group the Irish Penal Reform Trust Deirdre Malone said: “The published statistics in the Republic of Ireland do not tell us how long each of those prisoners actually spends in solitary confinement overall nor how often they are returned to solitary confinement as the periods may be simply renewed.

“Given that it is now five years since the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture proposed an absolute worldwide ban on prolonged solitary confinement for more than 15 days, the figures we have seen in respect of Northern Ireland are deeply concerning and renew our conviction that further progress in respect of this issue in the Republic is vital if we are to effectively protect the human rights of prisoners.”

The NIPS said: “Every case is considered on an independent basis and there is a stringent and transparent process in place to manage and review all cases. Prisoners are only held in the CSU for such a time as it is considered to be absolutely necessary.”

Mental health facility

A separate prison oversight body, the Independent Monitoring Board, has also called for the creation of a mental health facility within Maghaberry that could deal with some prisoners who might otherwise be sent to solitary confinement.

A spokesperson said: “We have stressed the need for an inpatient healthcare facility within Maghaberry as at the moment the prison does not have a functioning hospital wing.

“We recommend that one of the houses within the site be converted into a secure healthcare unit with an emphasis on prisoners with serious mental health issues, to be staffed by prison officers who are specifically trained along with mental health nurses, psychiatrists and other medical professionals.”