Northern Ireland’s only high security prison has been branded “unsafe and unstable” in one of the most damning inspection reports ever published in the region.
HMP Maghaberry near Lisburn, Co Antrim is a prison in crisis, according to the joint assessment by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI).
Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland Brendan McGuigan described the worrying conditions found by the inspection team.
“Maghaberry had become unsafe and unstable and was in a downward spiral that could have led to serious consequences,” he said.
“This was in our collective opinion, a prison in crisis.”
Maghaberry houses almost 1,000 prisoners, including around 50 with loyalist and republican paramilitary affiliations who are held in separated accommodation.
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 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 major incident.
A month before the inspection, a serious incident had 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 called for a separate investigation into the event.
In line with practice, the report and associated recommendations have been published a number of months after the visit - but for the first time ever inspectors felt the need to issue an “urgent action plan” to prison authorities in the immediate wake of the inspection.
In another unprecedented move, inspectors are to return to the prison for a follow-up visit in January. Follow-ups are usually conducted two to three years after inspection.
Inspectors were particularly critical of the management regime within Maghaberry.
Two months after the inspection, the governor Alan Longwell left his post. He was replaced by former governor of HMP Belmarsh in south London, Phil Wragg.
The report’s scathing findings include:
:: the prison was unsafe and unstable and there was a significant risk of a serious incident.
:: prisoners and staff felt unsafe, violence levels were rising and serious and credible threats had been made against staff.
:: care of vulnerable prisoners was inadequate, with high levels of suicide and self-harm.
:: health services had deteriorated and some aspects were unsafe.
:: regime curtailments were causing serious frustration among prisoners.
:: efforts to manage separated houses containing paramilitary-linked prisoners were having a disproportionately negative impact on the rest of the prison, with staff and management resources drawn away from the main prison population.
:: nearly all prisoners spent too much time in cells with excessive lock down periods.
:: learning and skills provision was inadequate.
Maghaberry was the subject of a highly critical report in 2009 but a follow-up inspection in 2012 had identified some improvements.
Mr McGuigan said progress had gone backwards.
“In our view, the prison had regressed from the last inspection in 2012 and the collective failures of leadership in the prison had created unacceptable risks, for both the staff and prisoners in their care,” he said.
Health and education regulatory bodies, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) and the Education Training Inspectorate (ETA) were also involved in the inspection.
Stormont’s Justice Minister David Ford insisted action had already been taken to address the failings.
“The appointment of Phil Wragg as governor, and the refreshed experienced senior leadership team put in place at the prison, has already led to improvements in a number of areas, and this will continue,” he said.
NI Prison Service director general Sue McAllister described the report as “disappointing”.
“The snapshot taken in May demonstrated that Maghaberry had been greatly affected by staff absence which had a serious impact on the regime and outcomes for prisoners,” she said.
“That has been addressed through robust management of attendance while supporting staff, recruitment of new officers and through redeployment from the other prisons.”
Ms McAllister also said steps were being taken, some in conjunction with the health authorities, to improve healthcare provision, tackle the drugs problems and address the issues raised about the management of separated prisoners.
She said an independent investigation to the Erne House fire was under way.