The governor of Northern Ireland's third largest prison has been suspended from duty following allegations of concern made by the Prisoner Ombudsman.
Gary Alcock was removed from his duties as governor at Hydebank Wood Prison and Young Offenders Centre yesterday evening.
The move follows a preliminary report into the death of a 23-year-old Frances McKeown last year.
The suicide of Ms McKeown came just weeks after an official inspection of facilities raised serious concerns over the safety of Northern Ireland’s inmates.
A damning report by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) included 113 recommendations for prison and health bosses and revealed a series of startling failings in the management of prisoners at risk of self-harm or suicide.
The panel expressed serious concern no action had been taken to prevent prisoners from using beds to attempt suicide at Hydebank.
The RQIA report noted how one young man was found unconscious in his cell after using laces as a ligature secured to his bed, months after another young prisoner took his own life in similar circumstances.
Less than two months after the inspection, ligatures were found in the cells of Hydebank prisoners Ms McKeown and Samuel Carson (19), who died by suicide within hours of each other.
A statement from the Northern Ireland Prison Service regarding Mr Alcock’s suspension described it as “precautionary”.
It added: “Director-general Colin McConnell took the decision to temporarily remove the governor from his post following allegations of concerns from the Prisoner Ombudsman.”
An independent investigation will be conducted into the allegations and a senior governor will be appointed to run Hydebank Wood, which is used to hold young offenders and female prisoners.
Mr McConnell, who leaves his post in Northern Ireland at the end of the month to take charge of Scotland’s jails, is currently in discussions with the National Offender Management Service and the Scottish Prison Service to identify an individual to take forward the investigation.
He has also written to Prisoner Ombudsman Pauline McCabe setting out the steps he has taken following the allegations contained in her interim report into Ms McKeown’s death.
It is anticipated the investigation will take a number of weeks to complete and the Prison Service has said it will not be commenting while the investigation is ongoing.
A spokeswoman for the Ombudsman said: “Mrs Pauline McCabe, the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, has confirmed that in the course of an investigation at Hydebank Wood Prison that matters of concern to her were brought to the attention of the director-general of the Prison Service.
“Mrs McCabe will not be making any further comment in advance of the outcome of the independent investigation.”
Frances McKeown (23) was found dead in her cell at Hydebank Wood on May 4, 2011, and was one of three people to die in Northern Ireland’s prisons that month. Samuel Carson (19) was found dead in his cell at Hydebank Wood, also on May 4, and Aaron Hogg (21) was found dead in his cell at HMP Maghaberry on May 23.