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Inmates control Northern Ireland jail, say staff as Hydebank attacks ‘go through the roof’

Prison is rife with drugs, they claim, as convicts mingle freely

By Rebecca Black

Inmates have effectively taken control of Northern Ireland's prison for women and young offenders, it has been claimed.

Staff at Hydebank Wood have come forward to describe the chaos unfolding at the facility. Prison officers are subjected to frequent assaults - in one incident, a member of staff was scalded with a flask of boiling water. Others have been punched and bitten, it is alleged.

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Hydebank governor Taylor strenuously defends facility and points to awards recognising its transformation

Hydebank jail concerns must not be dismissed out of hand 

The prison, located in south Belfast, is awash with drugs, staff say. Figures show there are more drug seizures at Hydebank - our smallest prison, with around 150 inmates - than either Maghaberry or Magilligan.

Hydebank was transformed into a "secure college" last year.

But shocked employees who spoke to the Belfast Telegraph say colleagues are at breaking point.

An investigation by this newspaper has found that attacks on prison officers have quadrupled since freedom of movement around the jail was introduced in 2012.

It can also be revealed that the number of prison officers has almost halved at Hydebank in the last five years - again over the same period that free movement has been allowed.

Staff claim the inmates now run the prison.

"The place is coming down with drugs and staff getting attacked left, right and centre," one told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The number of assaults on staff since Hydebank became a secure college has gone through the roof."

They said the attacks include scaldings, bites, kicks to the face, headbutts, punches and cuts. These mostly occur on the landings during the night time lock-up and include:

- Three officers bitten in the last year;

- Another officer scalded with a flask of boiling water by a female inmate;

- An inmate slashed with a razor when he was wrongly accused of being a sex offender;

- Three separate incidents of mass attacks on foreign national inmates;

- Five incidents of inmates getting onto roofs, refusing to come down and causing thousands of pounds worth of damage;

- One inmate being so savagely beaten he nearly lost his ear;

- Countless incidents of trusted inmates being let out into the community to work and being caught trying to bring drugs back in;

- Two pregnancy scares, and

- Three male on male sexual assaults involving groups of males seeking drugs they suspected had been hidden internally.

One source said a number of prison officers have been sent for hepatitis B and HIV tests following attacks.

Staff also claim prison authorities have adopted an "unsympathetic" approach to officers getting attacked.

Last night, Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie called for the reports to be urgently investigated.

"These new reports are troubling and I think it is important that the prison management and the prison service management board address these concerns," he said.

"If prison officers feel unsafe, then they must be listened to."

The governor of Hydebank defended the facility, saying it had won an award which recognised the work carried out to transform it from a young offenders' centre to a secure college.

Richard Taylor said: "None of the issues raised by the Belfast Telegraph have been raised with me, through their line management chain, or, to my knowledge, through whistleblower policy." Freedom of Information requests by this newspaper reveal that in just six months there have been 215 seizures of drugs and drug-related paraphernalia at Hydebank Wood - a prison with just 156 inmates.

At Maghaberry, where around 1,000 prisoners are held, there were 137 seizures between April and September this year, and, at Magilligan, where 500 are held, there were 125 seizures.

It should be noted that prisoner populations tend to fluctuate.

Another request found that the number of attacks on prison officers at Hydebank has quadrupled since the policy of unescorted movement of inmates was introduced in 2012. There were just 10 attacks on prison officers in 2012. This doubled to 22 in 2013 and increased further to 38 in 2014 and 40 in 2015.

This number is almost as many as in Maghaberry in 2015 (52 attacks) despite its prisoner population being considerably larger.

Staff absence rates are significantly higher at Hydebank compared with the other prisons.

At Hydebank, the absence rate is 12.4%, well above Maghaberry (9%) and Magilligan (7.7%).

Those figures relate to all staff based at each prison, and the absence rates relate to working days lost as a percentage of available working days.

Some receive written warnings which are "only considered following a full review of all information about the case. This scrutiny includes consideration of factors such as the reason for sickness absence and previous attendance record".

The NI civil service average is 11.7 days (5.3%).

Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph has also discovered that in the last five financial years - from 2011/12 to 2015/16 - 330 officers have lodged a claim for compensation for personal injury.

In the same time frame, 1,307 prison officers have lodged a claim for compensation for hearing loss.

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