For as long as I have been an elected representative Maghaberry Prison has been constantly in the news with one damning report following another.
Back in 2009 a report found that Maghaberry is one of the most expensive in the United Kingdom and also one of the worst.
This report by the CJI (Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland) was published six months after Colin Bell hanged himself while under supervision in a specialist unit.
Since then there have been a litany of incidents including the attempted suicide of John Deery in 2009 (Mr. Deery later died in the Royal Victoria Hospital); disciplinary charges against prison staff; accusations of failure to implement reform; the suicide of Aaron Hogg in 2011 after taking ‘ a cocktail of drugs’; the suicide of Christopher Stokes in 2012 which led to the publication of a report which highlighted “the importance of effectively addressing the misuse of drugs within Northern Ireland prisons”; the death of David Brown in custody and the subsequent criticism of prison staff; a report in 2012 which highlighted improper supervision of inmates and the lack of activities for inmates; another suicide attempt which left an inmate brain damaged in 2014; a fire at the prison in April 2015 and finally the report published last week which found that the prison is in a “state of crisis”.
Inspectors who visited the site in May found that Maghaberry was “unsafe and unstable” for prisoners and staff and their report is one of the most critical of any prison in the UK citing “significant failures in leadership”.
Sue McAllister, Northern Ireland Prison Service director general accepted that the report was “disappointing” blaming staff absence which has been addressed since May.
However a serving Prison Officer told the BBC that practices in the prison are “crazy” and claimed “Landings are running with two officers for 50 prisoners and posts are being stood down all over the prison.”
Justice Minister David Ford said “it was a very poor report and showed a very significant number of problems that needed to be addressed and which are now being addressed.”
Back in 2012 I had questioned Mr. Ford about the effective running of the Prison Service and was told “I am confident that the necessary foundations for the fundamental reform of the Prison Service are now in place and that the Service is well placed to respond to the changes necessary in the years ahead”.
The fact is that in the intervening years little or nothing has been done.
The annual average cost for each prisoner in Northern Ireland continues to fall but remains nearly double the average in England and Wales.
Why should this be the case?
The common them running through every report stresses the ‘complex’ nature of Maghaberry. In effect the Maghaberry site is home to multiple prisons in one place, dealing with a range of prisoners and having to apply a one size fits all security regime.
Phil Scraton, a Queen’s University Criminologist believes the prison system is still primarily geared towards politically affiliated prisoners.
“The lack of contact and recreation, poor mental healthcare, long periods of lock up, strip searching; there are a catalogue of issues that are a direct legacy of imprisonment during the conflict. What that does is undermine the rights of prisoners that would be expected in any other jurisdiction, but are denied here”.
The Prison review team’s report in May 2011 identified “a security led culture that derives from the troubles”.
Professor Scraton described the complex nature of Maghaberry: “there is the most complex system imaginable. You have remand, pre-sentence, short-term, lifers, with all the complexities that each of these categories bring into the prison. I don’t think you can ever resolve each of these complexities in one place, with a one size fits all prison officer, with a one size fits all medical service”.
Today the British Government announced plans to open nice new prisons in England and Wales; a move that could in the long term deliver savings on £80m per year. The plan is to make the prison system “fit for purpose in the 21st century”.
New prisons are cheaper to run and easier to equip with the facilities needed to help the rehabilitation of offenders.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove said “we will be able to design out the dark corners which too often facilitate violence and drug-taking and… build a prison estate which allows prisoners to be rehabilitated”.
A similar system should be adopted in Northern Ireland.
Maghaberry is not fit for purpose and no end of reform will ever make it fit for purpose. It is time to adopt a truly reforming attitude to prison reform and take the decision to replace Maghaberry with built for purpose facilities.
Of course prison reform isn’t just about building new prisons, there are other factors to consider including sentencing and proper investment into the things that drive crime such as mental health care, treatment for drug addiction, anti-social behaviour and so on.
But an important first step should be taken to review our current prison infrastructure with a view to replacing the existing structure within a fixed timeframe.