Standards have slipped at Magilligan Prison and action must be taken to prevent further decline, inspectors have found.
An inspection report did point to “significant strengths” within the regime at the medium to low-security male prison in Co Londonderry but stressed that performance levels were not as high as when it was last inspected five years ago.
One area of concern was an apparent lack of action against drug violations by prisoners.
The assessment was made by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons in England and Wales, with support from the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority and the Education and Training Inspectorate.
They found that good relationships between staff and prisoners existed and there were “reasonable” levels of safety at the prison.
Real progress was also found to have been made in terms of resettlement practice.
But the report expressed concern that strengths identified at Magilligan could be undermined by a risk averse culture, insufficient purposeful activity for prisoners and an unwillingness to challenge poor behaviour.
Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, said: “Since our last inspection of Magilligan Prison in March/April 2010, there has been clear progress in some areas.
“Relationships between staff and prisoners were much better than elsewhere in Northern Ireland and we noted many good interactions between staff and prisoners.
“Despite some gaps in the resettlement strategy, prisoners had good access to a broad range of resettlement services which is crucial to ensure seamless transition into the community.
“The inspection also noted some excellent, joined-up offender management driven by both prison and probation staff.”
But Mr McGuigan warned: “This inspection found a degree of complacency about safety within the prison and a culture that was risk averse.
“This sometimes manifested itself in an unwillingness to challenge poor behaviour.
“For example, levels of drug use were high and there were no disciplinary consequences for a positive drug test result.
“The level of purposeful activity was also poor and at the time of the inspection, nearly half of the prison population were not participating in education, vocational training or work activities.”
Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales said: “The atmosphere throughout the prison was relaxed and calm.
“Free flow movement was well managed and staff supervision on house blocks was effective.
“Inspectors also found evidence that mental health services had improved within the prison.
“Interventions to tackle substance misuse were comprehensive and appropriate although waiting lists were long.”
Mr Hardwick also voiced concern about aspects of the regime.
“While there was reasonable time out of cells for prisoners, it was unfortunate so many were not engaged in challenging work or participating in good quality education and training which would enhance their employability skills on release,” he said.
The report included five main recommendations – two of which were made to the Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and three which were made to the Governor of Magilligan Prison.
A further 61 recommendations were contained within the report.
Justice Minister David Ford highlighted that Magilligan achieved the highest mark possible for prisoner resettlement, noting that was a first for any prison in Northern Ireland.
But he acknowledged that further work is required in other areas.
“Magilligan Prison has achieved positive outcomes in three of the four healthy prison tests and the inspectors highlighted staff-prisoner relationships, levels of safety, and resettlement as areas where good work is being delivered,” he said.
“The report also highlights where further progress is needed, in particular on purposeful activity. The Prison Service is already taking steps to address this issue by working with education professionals from North West College to deliver real outcomes for people in custody.”
Director general of the Prison Service Sue McAllister said: “This report reflects the significant progress that has been made at Magilligan. While I acknowledge the comments made by the inspection team in respect of purposeful activity, it is important that we do not lose sight of the overall progress in the prison.”