A prison branded the most dangerous in the UK has stabilised its regime, but still falls a long way short of required safety standards, inspectors have said.
Conditions inside HMP Maghaberry in Northern Ireland were described as “Dickensian” by experts who compiled a damning inspection report last year.
Officials from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) carried out an unprecedented urgent follow-up visit last month, to establish if the “unsafe and unstable” environment had changed.
While their findings offer some encouragement to the prison authorities, Maghaberry has by no means been given a clean bill of health. In one area of concern flagged by inspectors - mental health provision - the situation has actually worsened.
The high-security prison near Lisburn, Co Antrim, has now effectively been placed on probation by the inspection chiefs, who have undertaken to carry out a series of inspections over the coming 18 months to ensure progress is maintained.
It is the first time CJINI has ever triggered such a rolling monitoring exercise.
Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland Brendan McGuigan said the prison had “stabilised”.
“While some progress had been made in addressing our concerns and the nine recommendations made in the November 2015 report, this progress was fragile,” he added.
“In my view, a significant amount of work remains outstanding to make Maghaberry safer for prisoners and staff and for this to reflect more positively in the outcomes for prisoners and their experience.”
At the time of the inspection last year, Maghaberry housed around 1,000 prisoners, including around 50 with loyalist and republican paramilitary affiliations who are held in separated accommodation.
The prison population had dropped by around 100 by the time of the follow-up inspection, in the main due to a separate industrial dispute involving lawyers which had halted the progress of many criminal cases through the justice system.
Dissident republicans have issued death threats against prison staff in recent years and in 2012 long-serving officer David Black was shot dead by dissidents as he drove to work.
Inspectors who carried out last May’s unannounced visit identified a series of serious failings in the regime that had fostered a volatile atmosphere, with the prison on the verge of a riot.
In three out of four measuring standards used by inspectors - safety, respect and purposeful activity - Maghaberry was given the lowest ranking possible.
They were particularly critical of the management regime within Maghaberry.
Two months after the inspection, the then governor left his post. He was replaced by former governor of HMP Belmarsh in south London, Phil Wragg.
Mr McGuigan said some improvements were visible, such as greater prisoner access to meaningful activities through the day and more supervision of inmates in recreation and exercise areas.
But he said a culture among staff that prisoners should be kept at arms’ length was still a problem.
“Historically, we have found Maghaberry to be a prison which has struggled to adapt to the requirements of a 21st century prison establishment and one where the legacy of the past has been a major impediment to its progress in providing safe, decent and rehabilitative outcomes for the men held there,” he said.
“Whilst the senior management team has started to raise expectations of what is wanted from and for the men in its care - and this was reflected in some of the staff that we met - it was not the norm. Many staff adhered to the view that prisoners were to be feared and that they could do little to influence prisoners’ custodial or future behaviour on release.
“This is a matter of culture and one which will be difficult to change. It will take time but is, in our view, essential for the long-term modernisation of the prison to make it fit for the 21st century.”
A month before the 2015 inspection, a serious incident unfolded when a number of prisoners set fire to a storehouse, with smoke filling an adjoining accommodation block where other inmates were locked in cells.
Inspectors said the fire at Erne House almost resulted in fatalities and had called for a separate investigation into the event.
The NI Prison Service published a synopsis of the findings of the investigation last week.
The report said the fire was “wholly preventable” and highlighted “poor and reckless decision-making” by some of those in command.
Commenting on the fire report, Mr McGuigan said: “We believe the report findings vindicate the decision of the inspection team to call for an independent inquiry into the incident.
“I understand the Prison Service is taking forward the lessons that have been learned as a result of this exercise, in terms of health, and fire safety.
“I trust other issues raised in the recommendation dealing with the fire, around the identification of misconduct or neglect by those responsible, which have not been addressed in the published report, will be taken forward by the Prison Service.”