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An arson a fortnight at Maghaberry leads TUV to ask: Who is in charge of jail?

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 16/06/2015

Maghaberry Prison
Maghaberry Prison

A fire is deliberately started every fortnight on average in Northern Ireland's maximum security prison, it has emerged.

A total of 28 non-accidental fires were recorded at Maghaberry in the last 12 months. In 17 cases the blazes were so serious that the Fire Service had to be called out.

The figures were released by Justice Minister David Ford after an Assembly question from TUV leader Jim Allister.

It comes after a recent fire caused around £400,000 worth of damage at the jail.

Mr Allister said it raised wider questions about prison discipline.

"One deliberate fire set every fortnight - that is a quite appalling statistic," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"It raises questions over discipline within the prison and about who exactly is in control. "It also raises key public safety questions, including the safety of prison staff and the inmates themselves."

Maghaberry is Northern Ireland's maximum security prison.

Its inmates include notorious criminals such as double murderer Colin Howell and toddler killer Barry McCarney.

But it has been hit by problems, including overcrowding, indiscipline and low staff morale.

Earlier this year around 40 dissident republicans were involved in a major stand-off. The prisoners refused to return to their cells and officers were withdrawn from landings for their own safety.

And last month it emerged that what had been described as a "small fire" had actually led to £400,000 repair costs.

Nor was it the only malicious fire at Maghaberry in recent times, with 28 deliberate blazes recorded in the last year.

The figures released by David Ford cover the 12 months to the end of May.

Mr Allister said they indicate a serious problem in Maghaberry.

He said the Minister must get a grip on the situation and ensure the authorities have proper control.

"I have heard reports of matters in the prison being out of control," he added.

"Prison officer morale has been affected and we are creeping back to a situation where prisoners can basically do what they want."

He added: "Despite the pretence that the Justice Minister tries to maintain that all is well in the prison, it seems to me that all is far from well.

"These are not accidents - these are deliberate fires that someone has consciously set.

"It is quite clear there is a struggle for authority in the prison."

Some £10m was spent on repair and maintenance work at Maghaberry between 2011 and 2015.

A Prison Service spokesman said: "As a high security prison Maghaberry has to deal with challenging prisoners who are sometimes intent on causing disruption and damage.

"If a prisoner is believed to have deliberately started a fire they will face disciplinary action. NIPS also works closely with the police. An example of this followed a recent fire at the prison, when six prisoners were charged by the police."

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