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Call for more prison staff after Maghaberry death

By Allan Preston

Prisons in Northern Ireland need to recruit 175 officers to keep them safe - but can't because of the current stalemate at Stormont, the chair of a body representing local officers has said.

Adrian Smith from the Prison Officers' Association (POA) in Northern Ireland made the comments after a 38-year-old remand prisoner died at Maghaberry early yesterday morning.

Further details of the man's name or how he died have yet to emerge but his next of kin have been informed.

In line with standard procedure, the PSNI, Coroner and Prisoner Ombudsman have launched investigations into the death.

Six prisoners died in the maximum security prison in 2016, with three in November alone.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Smith said he was still waiting for more information about the recent death, but said health and safety in the Northern Ireland prison system had not improved since the crisis last year.

"I would just like to extend my sympathy and of course that of the wider POA membership to this man's family circle, it's a difficult time for them. It's a tragedy that's becoming all too common in our prisons," he said.

He said understaffing was still the largest concern at Maghaberry and Hydebank Wood College.

"With there being no Stormont Executive in place, the recruitment they're talking about is just being put back and back as there's nobody there to make a decision to let the prison service recruit more staff."

Mr Smith said the current situation meant he could not rule out more prisoner deaths.

"I haven't been in Maghaberry for a few months, but I do know the staffing levels are bound to have an impact on the regime the prison is going to run. Whether that has anything to do with the sad death of this man, I don't know."

He continued: "The mood among staff at the moment is still very low. They were looking at industrial action last year over conditions of their health and safety because they are so short-staffed and it's not getting any better.

"As of the end of March this year, the prison staff in Northern Ireland were 175 staff short which doesn't help matters."

Speaking yesterday the head of the Prison Service, Ronnie Armour, said: "I would like to extend my sympathy and that of the Northern Ireland Prison Service to the family of the man who has died in Maghaberry this morning. My thoughts are with them at this difficult time."

Green Party MLA Clare Bailey, who was a member of the Justice Committee, passed on her condolences to the family.

"There are too many deaths in our prison system. Six people lost their lives while in prison in 2016," she said.

"While the details surrounding the death of this man are just emerging, it is very clear that our prison service is under great pressure.

"This is having a significant impact on prisoners and prison office staff.

"Again, it brings home the reality that the DUP and Sinn Fein are failing the people of Northern Ireland."

She added: "We need an Executive and Assembly in place to deal with the difficult but crucial issues like the much needed reform of our Prison Service."

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said: "I'll repeat what I've been saying all of last year - the Prison Service is under incredible pressure - they do not have the resources or man power.

"As I said before, we're going to see more deaths and tragically here we have another one.

"We still need to wait and see what the outcome is and how it occurred, and my condolences go to the family."

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