Prison Inspector frustrated over inmate safety
A senior inspector has expressed frustration that more has not been done to improve prisoner safety in Northern Ireland.
Brendan McGuigan found limited progress had been made over the last five years.
He expressed concern about bullying and warned more needed to be done to tackle access to illegal drugs.
Management said keeping inmates out of harm is a priority.
Mr McGuigan said: "Maintaining the safety of prisoners is a challenge and it remains one of the greatest areas of risk for the Prison Service."
Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) and the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) found limited progress had been made in implementing recommendations to improve the safety of prisoners.
Mr McGuigan, the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, said he was "frustrated" more had not been done in the five years since the last joint inspection.
Many committed to prison arrive vulnerable with significant diagnosed and undiagnosed health care needs, mental health issues, personality disorders, drug or alcohol addiction or learning difficulties.
In 2014, inspectors made recommendations to the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) and South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust (SEHECT) to address suicide, self-harm, bullying and violence reduction and the availability and access to illegal and prescription drugs.
Mr McGuigan said: "When inspectors returned in 2018 we found that bullying remained a significant issue, and as a result have repeated our recommendation that the NIPS should, as a priority, review its violence reduction and anti-bullying strategy and this work should be completed within six months."
He welcomed steps taken to reduce the supply of drugs entering prison but said more needed to be done.
"At an operational level the partnership between the NIPS and SEHSCT had improved but difficulties at a strategic level have contributed to the slow pace of progress."
He recommended senior management review joint working and governance arrangements and agree an action plan to address key issues, including implementation of death in custody recommendations made by the Prisoner Ombudsman.
He acknowledged incidents where prompt actions and interventions of staff had saved lives and that many committed and dedicated individuals were working to ensure prisoners were safe and secure.
"We must never lose sight of the fact that prison does not offer a therapeutic environment for vulnerable individuals.
"Therefore, it is essential the NIPS and the SEHSCT continue to develop their partnership working, identify those really vulnerable prisoners committed to their care and address the underlying cause of that vulnerability."
Ronnie Armour, Prison Service director general, and the director of prison healthcare at the trust, Bria Mongan, said significant progress had been made over 14 months since the inspection.
"Keeping people in our care safe is a priority for everyone working in our prisons.
"As recognised by the inspectors, prisons can be a challenging environment and our staff support people with varied and complex needs, providing compassionate care to the people in custody.
"It is no exaggeration to say prison officers and healthcare staff save lives."
They introduced care plans, known as SPAR evolution, for the most vulnerable, implemented a Towards Zero Suicide plan, and held a series of events across all prisons promoting an evidence-based, public health approach to improving outcomes.
They said extensive work restricting availability of illicit drugs had been acknowledged but were not complacent and continued to work in partnership to support people.