Department of Justice rejects claim Maghaberry prisoners in cells 23 hours a day
Prisoners who are not separated in Northern Ireland regularly remain in their cells for 23 hours a day, Sinn Fein claimed.
Ulster Unionist Doug Beattie's call for an end to the special detached status afforded to loyalist and republican paramilitaries at HMP Maghaberry was debated at the Assembly on Monday.
The Justice Department has challenged the assertion that inmates were locked up for so long.
Republicans have complained of dehumanising practices in the high-security Co Antrim jail, Sinn Fein South Antrim Assembly member Declan Kearney noted.
He said: "Prisoners on integrated wings report habitual 23-hours-a-day lock-up, with only one hour for recreation or association.
"They are obliged to eat three daily meals in the cell space also occupied by their toilet."
The Department of Justice challenged his claim.
A spokeswoman said: "It is incorrect to say that they are locked up 23 hours a day."
Mr Beattie, who tabled the debate at Parliament Buildings, said the Department of Justice should aim for a fully integrated system within Northern Ireland's only high-security prison by 2026.
Mr Kearney said strip searching and controlled movement in Roe House, which houses dissident republicans, presented a serious problem.
"Such practices dehumanise prisoners and also prison staff."
He said prisoners reported that parity of esteem did not exist for the Irish cultural identity, particularly for the Irish language and for language learning resources, confirmed in a July 2016 report by Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI).
The South Antrim Assembly member said the template agreed in August 2010 between prisoners and prison staff should be revisited, because it contains the basis for resolution of issues, which create avoidable and unnecessary stress and conflict in the prison context.
"We need to be de-escalating and resolving contentious issues and practices in Maghaberry, not compounding problems.
"The UUP motion offers no properly thought-out approach for how that can be done.
"Our focus, as an Assembly, should be on making Maghaberry a stable, stress-free and safe environment for all staff, all prisoners and all those who visit the prison."
Mr Beattie questioned why, 22 years on from the ceasefires and 18 years on from the Belfast Agreement, should the authorities still be perpetuating the type of prison regime that existed during the Troubles.
"It is quite clear that there are some in our society who are not willing to accept that the people of Northern Ireland want to live in a normalised society and they do not want to see guns on our streets.
"Whether you package them as paramilitaries, drug dealers or organised crime gangs, the truth is they are nothing more than criminals and must be treated as such."
The UUP motion calling for an end to the separated regime within ten years was altered by a successful Sinn Fein amendment, which called for Justice Minister Claire Sugden to examine the operation of the regime and assess what changes were required.