Belfast Telegraph

Besieged Maghaberry warders warn they are ‘close to losing control’

By Chris Kilpatrick

Prison staff at Northern Ireland’s highest security jail have warned they are at risk of losing control of the facility within months.

Sources within Maghaberry Prison claim staff are “stretched to the limit” and expressed fears a “major incident or escape” is imminent.

One said there was “a complete breakdown of morale across the staff” as a result of stress.

Last week the Belfast Telegraph revealed concerns dissident republican prisoners were placing an unbearable strain on those working at the Co Antrim prison.

Staff said in recent months there had been a spike in the number of death threats made to serving officers.

The Department of Justice said claims of escalating tensions were inconsistent with the views of senior management within the prison.

An officer at Maghaberry claimed staff were warned late last week that anybody speaking to the media about their concerns would face dismissal.

They said single officers throughout the prison were at times left with more than 30 prisoners to oversee.

The staff member said a specialist response force in the prison had been cut to an average of eight people from a previous 30-strong unit.

And they claimed that should a prison officer find themselves in difficulty it could take up to seven minutes for support to arrive.

In the past fortnight a female officer was hospitalised after being attacked.

“I’ve never, ever seen that prison as explosive as it is at the minute,” the source said.

“As well as the dissidents and loyalist paramilitaries there are the crime gangs including Chinese and Russian.

“We have kids looking after all these people who have no prison savvy.

“Prison is a very dangerous place to be and these people have nothing to lose.”

The father of a young officer told this newspaper they were totally disillusioned.

“They’re exhausted,” the father said.

“They were delighted to get the job at the time and worked so hard.

“But they can’t sleep at night with the stress. It’s awful.

“Some of these prisoners are murderers, hardened criminals. They make mincemeat of young staff.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said: “These opinions do not reflect the assessment of the governor and his experienced team.

“They are also inconsistent with the management information available to NIPS (Northern Ireland Prison Service) senior managers regarding the operation of Maghaberry Prison.”

 The chair of Stormont’s justice committee previously told the Belfast Telegraph he had serious concerns about Maghaberry.

“There are significant personnel forcing the issue who have been there, served their time, and are back in. So the pressure has increased since some of those senior republicans returned to Roe House,” Paul Givan (left) said last week.

In a statement yesterday, prisoners on the republican wing at Roe House said they were “committed to taking whatever action we deem necessary” to ensure changes are implemented on issues including prisoner movement, visits and searches.

“Decisions relating to the utilisation of the limited physical space available in Roe will be regulated through the agreement of the representatives of the republican prisoner groups and no one else,” the statement said.

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Background

Last week this newspaper told of concerns over the number and profile of dissident republicans currently at Maghaberry. A Sinn Fein delegation travelled to the facility in recent weeks in an attempt to quell tensions. It’s claimed the prisoners want an overhaul of the style of management of Roe House where they are held. “What they ultimately want is a removal of all prison officers from the house,” an insider said. “They want total control.”

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