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Record population means prison pressures to continue for some time - Prison Chief


Pressures at Maghaberry Prison will continue for some time as the prisoner population hits record levels. 

That was the message by Northern Ireland Prison Service Director General Ronnie Armour following the publication of the findings of an unannounced inspection of Maghaberry Prison in September / October last year by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate and HM Inspector of Prisons.

In acknowledging the report conclusions Ronnie Armour said:

“While the findings of Inspectors are of course disappointing, they are not surprising. For some time we have been highlighting the impact of the pandemic on the prison system and our struggle to recover in the context of a rapidly rising prison population. 

“When Inspectors last visited Maghaberry in 2018, the population was 830, when they returned in October 2022 that had risen to 1,050 and this week the Maghaberry population stands at 1,230 men, of whom over half are being held on remand and therefore do not have to engage in rehabilitative work.”

Continuing he said:

“While it is important that we don’t seek to make excuses for the decline in service delivery at the Prison since the pandemic, no-one should underestimate the pressures prison staff are currently facing. It is important to recognise the exceptional work staff undertake with some of the most complex, challenging and dangerous members of our community. 

“Like our hospitals, ambulance service, police and other front-line services, the current demands placed on prison officers is unprecedented. We are not complacent about the issues Inspectors have raised, indeed we are determined to address them, however it is important to recognise that due to the context in which we are operating in, this is likely to be the case for some time to come."

Turning to the specifics of the Report, Ronnie Armour said:

“The Chief Inspector has rightly identified the availability of drugs as a priority concern and since the inspection some eight months ago we have introduced x-ray body scanners at Maghaberry. This new equipment has surpassed our expectations and early indications signal a huge drop in illegal drugs coming into the Prison.  However that will now mean prescription drugs will become more sought after and we will continue to support our colleagues in the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust to ensure that medication is not abused.”

On the issue of staff/prisoner relations the Director General said: 

“I am pleased the Inspectors recognised that the vast majority of our staff are friendly and approachable and that they support and challenge people in our care to change in a professional and appropriate way.

"However, I am concerned that some comments were made to inspectors about the treatment of Catholic prisoners. The Prison Service takes these allegations very seriously and I have written to the Chief Inspector indicating that such comments must be fully investigated and assuring her that we will do so if the evidence provided to inspectors is given to us. No stone should or will be left unturned in dealing with such allegations of unacceptable behaviour.

“In terms of the complex needs of the prison population, the report highlights a key concern that there is no specialist personality disorder provision in Maghaberry, despite this being raised as a significant concern by the RQIA in October 2021. This means that some acutely unwell people continue to be cared for by the Prison Service rather than receiving appropriate inpatient treatment. Dealing with this issue should be a top priority for us all.”

In conclusion Ronnie Armour welcomed the fact that, despite the population pressures faced at Maghaberry, the Report indicates that “most prisoners felt safe, the number of recorded violent incidents had reduced since the last inspection and was lower than in similar prisons, and most use of force was low level and its governance was good.”

Summary of Priority and Key Areas of Concern:

Priority Concerns and Commentary

Below is commentary by the Prison Service on the current position in relation to the priority and key concerns raised by Inspectors.

1.  Deaths in custody – we wait for Ombudsman and Coronial reports before taking action rather than investigating and implementing mitigating measures ourselves.

  • We have followed the same procedure following deaths in custody for some time.  The Governor conducts a hot and cold debrief which is a learning opportunity.  We then leave it to the PSNI, Ombudsman and Coroner to investigate.  NIPS meet the Ombudsman regularly, if there is any learning or urgent measures we need to take as a result of her investigation she advises us and we take action. 

  • In the context of this concern we have developed new arrangements (Quick Time Learning) and shared the proposed approach with the Ombudsman and await any comments she might wish to offer.

2.  There is no effective or coordinated plan to reduce the demand for and the supply of drugs.

  • With the introduction of the X-Ray Body Scanners we are already seeing the significant impact this technology is having in detecting and deterring trafficking.

  • Separately we are working with SET on a review of the joint substance strategy and a new corporate drug strategy which will focus on demand.

3.  Prisoners don’t have regular and consistent access to high quality education, skills and work activities.

  • Because of the population increase and staff absence in NIPS and Belfast Met at the time of the inspection provision was inconsistent. 

  • We are still struggling in this area but there has been improvement.

4.  Not all serious safeguarding issues managed in accordance with the policy.

  • NIPS have a policy in place and we notify the PSNI in line with that policy, the concern centres on the need to apply our policy more consistently, have a designated safeguarding lead and ensure better communication with SET is also required.

  • We are addressing this concern and now have a safeguarding lead at Maghaberry. Corporately, NIPS has reviewed and revised its Safeguarding Policy and guidance to provide improved guidance for staff and managers.

5.  Not all prisoners provided with effective support to guide them through their sentence and prevent future offending

  • Again the population increase and staff shortages had an impact here. 

  • We have put additional resources into our Prisoner Development Units and we have bought in additional support from the voluntary and community sector.

6.  Time out of cell in Bann House needs to improve

  • The Square Houses are our oldest accommodation (we now have Foyle open and are about to open Erne). Bann is the committal Unit and prisoners normally only stay there a short time, although there can be exceptions.

  • We have improved the time out of cell, which Inspectors say elsewhere in the report is reasonably good and favourable in comparison with other prisons.

7.  Oversight and management of prisoners on SPAR were weak Use of anti-ligature clothing not always appropriately authorised or recorded.

  • In Maghaberry the SET mental health team are involved in care planning under Spar Evolution for people at risk. Despite being trained by NIPS, SET staff often insist on the use of restrictive practice, including observation cells and anti-ligature clothing. Care planning is multi-disciplinary and does not only fall to NIPS staff. In 2022 Maghaberry recorded the lowest rate of persons self-harming since 2018.

8.  Access to psychologically informed treatments insufficient – no specialist provision for personality disorder.

  • This is the most significant area of concern, treatments are insufficient and we have no specialist provision for personality disorder.  Demand is growing and this has been recognised by RQIA but resources is simply not being made available.

9.  Prisoner fail to attend prison healthcare and hospital appointments.

  • In 2021/22, 42% (99) of failures to attend outside hospital appointments was as a result of prisoners refusing to go on the day. Staffing pressures last summer did result in the cancellation of some routine appointments.  We are addressing this issue which is related to the size of the population.

10.  Lack of commissioning arrangements to address social care needs – provision does not align with what is available in the community.

  • This has been a long running issue.  Neither we nor DoH have funding to provide such care.  Interim arrangements are however in place.

11.  Gaps in the curriculum such as IT, and music.

  • The gaps that have been referenced are currently being addressed as part of the interim curriculum review that was recently undertaken by Belfast Met, and which is now subject to final budget decisions.  The gap in music that came about as a result of retirement, provided an opportunity to refocus the curriculum on stronger employability pathways.  The IT post was vacant between August-October 2022 and February 2023 to date.  Previous efforts to recruit for the post have been unsuccessful and current recruitment has been paused awaiting budget decisions.  This is a post that we are keen to replace.

12.  Insufficient qualifications available in work activities.

  • In conjunction with Belfast Met we are working to maximise accredited labour opportunities through a project based learning approach that will cover wider curriculum areas.


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