Jail inspectors have urged courts to think carefully about holding people in prison while mental health assessments are carried out.
That is one of many findings in a new report into the roughly 830-inmate Maghaberry jail, which stated while the prison is “calmer” than in May 2015 (when an inspection revealed it to be in a state of “crisis”), there are still causes for concern.
Among them was that the jail was used “as a safe place by the courts whilst mental health assessments took place”. This, the report said, was “inappropriate”.
It noted more than 10 self-inflicted deaths of inmates had occurred since 2012.
It said the jail does not offer a “therapeutic environment” to inmates with “complex needs”, and “the courts should be aware of these limitations when committing people to prison for mental health assessments”.
Other findings included that the separated units in the middle of the jail still pose a “significant challenge”, though few precise details about this were presented in the report.
These separated units are where republican and loyalist prisoners with paramilitary affiliations are accommodated (with the Secretary of State deciding who can be admitted to each wing).
At present there are a total of 38 prisoners in separation: 16 of them in Bush House 1 and 2 (the loyalist landings), and 22 in Roe House 3 and 4 (the republican landings).
The inspection report also stated work is being done to “provide opportunities and reassurance to gay and bisexual men to disclose their sexuality”.
The report is based on a two-day visit to the prison in April, and is published today by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) and HM Inspectorate of Prisons.
Asked what the alternatives might be to holding people in custody whilst awaiting mental health checks, the CJINI said: “Inspectors believe that Maghaberry does not offer a therapeutic environment for those individuals presenting with or experiencing mental health issues and have recommended that the Departments of Justice and Health should work together to establish more appropriate and viable alternatives.
“We have previously highlighted the need for a secure mental health facility within Northern Ireland and believe that such a facility would be of benefit in managing individuals including prisoners who require mental health assessment and care.”
In response to the report, the NI Prison Service said it will “continue to build on progress”.