Maghaberry Prison ‘making renewed efforts to identify most vulnerable prisoners’

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Officers at Maghaberry Prison are making renewed efforts to identify the most vulnerable prisoners, the criminal justice inspector said.

The high-security jail has a significant proportion of inmates with mental illness.

Self-harming is an ever-present threat and five people have taken their own lives in recent years. Many are recovering from alcohol or drugs problems.

The Criminal Justice Inspectorate said more work was needed to ensure vulnerable inmates were not further distressed by their treatment.

Chief inspector of Criminal Justice Brendan McGuigan acknowledged the hurt suffered by those who loved ones died behind bars.

He said: “When they (officers) engage and start to use some of their softer skills the results can be really positive and satisfying from a personal perspective, that today I really helped someone.

“I see that increasingly around Maghaberry, the work of the prisoner safety and support team.

“These are people trying to identify the vulnerable prisoners and ensure they get access to as much support as they can to minimise the risk.”

A series of tragic deaths and incidents have occurred at Maghaberry.

At risk prisoners are held in a dedicated section, specially designed to limit the possibility of self-harming.

The unit is fairly spacious and open, with high ceilings.

Chess and scrabble boards are available.

While use of cells which can be easily observed by officers and clothing which is difficult to rip into ligatures can make sense from a security perspective, it runs the risk of further distressing vulnerable inmates, inspectors have explained.

One of the governors at Maghaberry, David Savage, said special efforts had been made to understand the position of vulnerable inmates.

He said: “If you are going to help someone out of a crisis you have to understand what that crisis is and help and support them out of it and we are doing it extremely effectively now.”

If needs be officers can be posted outside cells, with the door open, for 24 hours a day if a prisoner is in crisis.

Mr Savage acknowledged using observation cells sometimes prolonged incidents involving vulnerable prisoners.

During one case recently someone with mental health issues assaulted a member of staff.

Mr Savage said: “Instead of isolating him we put him in an observation cell on his own.

“We decided that we would only escalate if he escalated.”

Mr McGuigan put much of the progress down to good leadership by new governor David Kennedy.

“He is an intrusive presence around every area of his prison and he comes from a security background, so he is able to challenge people who don’t want to do things because they have never had to do it that way before and because that might represent a security risk.

“He has a core of senior managers working there with him who are not spending their time along the top management corridor, they are out in the prison, a walking, talking visible presence, and I think what that does is reassure staff that actually they are interested and they want to see improvements in the prison environment.

“I could not under-estimate the power of that as one single issue.”

Mr Kennedy has risen through the ranks and has many years service at Maghaberry.

He arrived as governor after the damning 2015 inspection and reversed a policy that officers not patrol common association areas for prisoners.

He established a canteen staffed mainly by prisoners, frequented by officers after initial security opposition to eating food made by inmates.

He cracked down on drug use and established a daily routine involving purposeful activity.

A new prison block costing more than £50 million is under construction and features mainly single cells.

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