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200 illicit items seized in prisons every month in Northern Ireland

By David Dawson

Published 29/08/2016

Drugs, alcohol and knives are among more than 1,100 items seized from Northern Ireland's prisons in the last six months, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal
Drugs, alcohol and knives are among more than 1,100 items seized from Northern Ireland's prisons in the last six months, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal
Sue McAllister

Drugs, alcohol and knives are among more than 1,100 items seized from Northern Ireland's prisons in the last six months, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Almost 200 illicit items are discovered every month in our jails, shocking figures obtained by this newspaper show.

At the high-security Maghaberry Prison, there were 112 instances of drugs being discovered by warders, while alcohol was seized 20 times.

Blades and knives were seized on 17 occasions, and mobile phones and chargers were removed 18 times.

Some 803 other items, of which there are no details, have also been seized.

Last November inspectors slammed Maghaberry as the most dangerous prison they had ever scrutinised.

The joint assessment by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland concluded it was "unsafe and unstable" for inmates and staff.

Figures released also show that in Magilligan Prison drugs or tablets have been seized 102 times, while mobile phones, chargers and SIM cards have been seized 39 times.

At Hydebank drugs, mobile phones and a weapon were seized by prison staff in recent months.

With 1,163 items discovered in the first six months of this year, that equates to 194 a month, or 45 per week. SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon described the situation as "critical".

"These figures paint a disturbing picture about the wholesale availability of illicit, illegal and dangerous substances in our prisons," she said.

"The scale of drugs seizures in both Maghaberry and Magilligan reveals an organised attempt to flood our prisons, creating a dangerous environment for both inmates and staff.

"Prisons should be a space for the rehabilitation of offenders. That cannot happen in an environment where drugs and weapons appear to be making their way into the prison so freely."

The North Belfast MLA is calling on Justice Minister Claire Sugden to bring forward a strategy focused on preventing the importation of dangerous substances and protecting inmates and staff. Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie, a member of Stormont's justice committee, described the level of illegal contraband in jails as "worrying".

"Of particular concern is the number of drug seizures in our prisons," he said.

"Where some will see this as a reflection of society as a whole, the fact that drugs are so easily brought into a controlled environment for personal use or as prison currency is disturbing."

Earlier this week the Upper Bann MLA visited the youth facility at Hydebank and was left impressed by what he said was a progressive rehabilitation regime on offer.

"The difficulties in preventing illegal drugs entering the facility was made clear to me, but so was the inability of prison officers to intercept and disrupt illegal drugs being used, sold or bought," he said.

"In some cases it is brought into the prison within various human cavities and officers are only able to conduct body searches.

"What would help is if body scanners such as those in airports were used in our prisons, but this would require a change in legislation so individuals could be compulsory scanned.

"To tackle this issue the Prison Service must be proactive and use intelligence-based interventions. They also require the resources, technology, legislation and support from the Department of Justice to support their efforts."

Sinn Fein MLA Jennifer McCann said the figures, obtained via a Freedom of Information request, were "a matter for concern".

She added: "We must ensure that prison is a safe environment for prisoners, staff and visitors."

DUP MLA Lord Morrow wants the issue of drug smuggling within jails investigated to establish "how they are getting into prison and ways in which this can be tackled robustly."

He said: "Drug addiction is a scourge on our society and perpetuates the crime we see on our streets.

"There is a high likelihood that reoffending will continue when prisoners are released if a cycle of drug use continues in prison.

"I think this issue is something that needs to be seriously considered by the Department of Justice and the Department of Health.

"We need to ensure prisoners have access to help and support to combat any drug addiction they have and we need to make sure drugs are not finding their way into our prisons.

This can cause safety concerns for our prison staff throughout Northern Ireland."

Last week the head of the Prison Service announced she will step down in October.

Sue McAllister was appointed director general in 2012 and became the first woman to hold the most senior position within a Prison Service in the UK.

Mrs McAllister said it had been a "great privilege" to work in the role.

The Justice Department is to begin the search for her successor next month.

Belfast Telegraph

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