Prison authorities are not doing enough to protect prisoners from violent bullying and intimidation by fellow inmates inside Northern Ireland's high security jail, inspectors have found.
Maghaberry Prison does not provide a sufficiently safe environment for the almost 1,000 men held in the Co Antrim facility, according to the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI).
Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Brendan McGuigan, said drugs were often the cause of violent incidents. "It's clear to us that people on prescription medication are being bullied to hand over the medication and that then creates the opportunities for a black market to operate within the prison," he said.
The announced CJI inspection was the first since Maghaberry was deemed a failing prison in a heavily critical assessment by inspectors in 2009. The exercise in March this year found areas of progress - and noted some improvement in prisoner safety - but said "significant weaknesses" remained. "There's more work that needs to be done in relation to the safety of prisoners and there is a need to tackle bullying and incidents of violence that do occur," said Mr McGuigan.
The chief inspector said the issue was not down to staffing resources but how prison officers interacted with inmates, claiming there was not enough effort to get closer to prisoners and monitor problematic issues as they developed.
"The inspection team found that despite high staffing levels, association and exercise areas were not adequately supervised and concerns remain that Maghaberry does not provide a sufficiently safe environment for prisoners held there," said Mr McGuigan.
He said the team of inspectors also found that prison staff did not show prisoners sufficient respect. Among other findings, the inspection report said there had been no progress to address the long-standing issue of disparity in treatment between Catholic and Protestant prisoners, with Catholics not faring as well.
The unequal outcomes primarily related to the granting of benefits or application of sanctions where staff had a measure of discretion. The chief inspector said the problem was complex and needed further analysis to establish if actual discrimination was a factor.
"Maghaberry's own statistics have confirmed that in terms of equality there were still unequal outcomes for Catholic prisoners in several important areas," said Mr McGuigan. "Yet this sensitive issue was not being addressed and we have recommended the Northern Ireland Prison Service to take action to deliver equality of outcomes for all prisoners."
The prison was inspected by a multi-disciplinary team of inspectors from CJI, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) and the Education and Training Inspectorate.