Problems with Catholic inmates at Magillgian go back years, say SDLP

Magilligan Prison, Co Derry.
Magilligan Prison, Co Derry.

Serious problems remain at Magilligan Prison, despite a new report this week highlighting progress made in the rehabilitation of prisoners, according to the SDLP.

The party’s policing and legacy spokesperson Dolores Kelly said that the experiences of Catholic prisoners, in particular, were deeply disturbing.

“I welcome the progress that has been made at Magilligan prison since the last inspection report,” she said.

“It’s clear that there has been a sizeable shift in standards and in the relationship between staff and prisoners. That has resulted in better outcomes and should, of course, be welcomed.

“But let’s be clear – this report also identifies serious disparities in the experiences of Catholic and Protestant prisoners, particularly in areas where staff discretion is concerned. It cannot be acceptable that over 70% of Catholic prisoners report that a member of staff has not checked in on them personally in the last week. And similarly, almost 75% report that staff do not speak to them most of the time during association.

“Brendan McGuigan first raised some of these issues over a decade ago and it is astounding that there has been no effective remedial action.

“Progress has clearly been made at the prison but for Catholic prisoners, and those addicted to drugs, there is clearly a long way to go. I’m not sure there is cause for the head of the Prison Service to be ‘absolutely delighted’ when there are clearly many issues to resolve.

The report follows an inspection carried out by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons in England and Wales (HMIP) with support from colleagues from the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) and the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) found that improvements had been made in a number of key areas.

“When Inspectors visited Magilligan Prison in 2014, we were concerned that nearly half of the prison population was not participating in education, vocational training or work activities. However when we visited the prison June this year, we found excellent progress had been made in this area,” said Brendan McGuigan, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland and Peter Clarke, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales.

“Time out of cell was much improved and learning, skills and work provision had moved forward significantly with about three-quarters of the men held there engaged in a range of purposeful activity. There was also a clear aspiration to improve this level further,” they said.

The Chief Inspectors also praised the leadership within the prison and the positive culture that existed between staff and prisoners at Magilligan.

“We found that partnership working was strong at the prison and the senior team had developed a clear vision of where it wanted to be and had made significant progress towards achieving these aims. Inspectors also observed constructive, friendly relationships between staff and prisoners which contributed to the calm, settled atmosphere around the prison,” said Mr McGuigan and Mr Clarke.

“The quality of these relationships was a major strength and if anything had improved since 2014, with 80% of prisoners indicating they were treated with respect and had a member of staff they could turn to for help.

“What we observed in operation was often exemplary and represented a major strength of the establishment,” they stated.

The Inspection team also welcomed the innovative work undertaken to improve provision for disabled and older prisoners and improvements in relation to health care.

“We were also pleased to find that health services had improved and that mental health provision was particularly good for those prisoners who were known to the service, particularly as far more prisoners at this inspection presented with significant need and reported experiencing depression; having issues with self-harm or mental health problems,” they said.

However, the Chief Inspectors were concerned by some of the inspection findings and called for further improvements to be taken forward to address a number of ongoing issues.

“Poorer outcomes for Catholic prisoners remain in a number of key areas and it is our view that their needs to be a greater focus on the underlying reasons for these differences. It is our view the Northern Ireland Prison Service needs expert independent support to achieve this,” said Mr McGuigan and Mr Clarke.

The Chief Inspectors also remained concerned that an integrated drugs and alcohol strategy still did not exist at Magilligan Prison aimed at reducing supply and addressing the needs of prisoners with substance misuse or addiction problems.

“Reducing the supply and use of illicit and illegal drugs is a major challenge which requires a strategic approach. We recommend there should be a prison-wide drug and alcohol strategy with an associated action plan to address both supply reduction and support issues,” said Mr Clarke.

In conclusion, the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice said the inspection recognised the progress made at Magilligan but stressed the continued need for management within the prison to maintain a focus on delivering positive outcomes for prisoners.

“This report shows the change strong, committed leadership and a clear vision can bring within a prison environment and we would urge the Northern Ireland Prison Service to continue to build on this strong foundation to continue to deliver a positive rehabilitative environment for prisoners. Significant challenges remain therefore there is no room for complacency.” and the current focus on improvement at Magilligan must not be allowed to slip.

“The challenge for the future is to maintain this positive direction of travel.”