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Inmates making 30 complaints a day about conditions in Northern Ireland prisons

By Deborah McAleese

Published 11/01/2016

A prison officer does his rounds at Maghaberry
A prison officer does his rounds at Maghaberry

Northern Ireland's prisoners have made almost 9,000 complaints to the Prison Service about their living conditions in the past 11 months, the Belfast Telegraph has learned.

Almost 30 complaints a day are received by the prison authorities from inmates about their accommodation, food, education, lock-up times and staff.

In one case it is understood an inmate posted the contents of his prison lunch along with his complaint about the food into the prison's grievance box.

Allegations of assault by staff and other inmates, as well as concerns about health and safety, have also been received by the authorities.

According to the Prison Service, in the space of 11 months last year, 8,848 complaints were made by prisoners at Northern Ireland's four prison facilities; Maghaberry, Magilligan, the Young Offender Centre at Hydebank and the female prison at Hydebank.

There are around 1,500 inmates currently being held in Prison Service custody.

The majority of the complaints have been branded "vexatious" by the chairman of Stormont's Justice Committee Alastair Ross.

And Ukip MLA David McNarry said Ulster's inmates should "stop moaning" as they have "little to complain about".

However, the partner of an inmate said she had several concerns about the living conditions and facilities at Maghaberry Prison where he is serving a 12-month sentence for assault.

According to information obtained by the Belfast Telegraph under Freedom of Information, prison accommodation was the cause of the greatest number of complaints - more than 2,000.

The information also showed that 1,368 complaints were made about staff, 498 about lock-ups, 287 about food, 333 in relation to education and 186 about health and safety.

More than 60 allegations of assault by staff members and 18 by another inmate were also made.

Mr Ross said that around half of all complaints are made by separated republican prisoners, who themselves represent less than 2% of the overall prison population.

"People will draw their own conclusions about the motivation or substance of these complaints, but the fact that so few are upheld would suggest that many are vexatious in nature," the justice committee chairman said.

He added: "It is important to have a robust complaints mechanism in place, and any complaint should of course be taken seriously.

"The fact that a small number of complaints are ever referred to the Ombudsman would suggest that the internal Northern Ireland Prison Service system is an effective mechanism to deal with the vast majority of complaints."

Mr McNarry said: "Prisoners want to control the prisons. Prison is not supposed to be a holiday camp or therapy centre. Figures for reoffending prove that criminals learn little from their time in jail."

He added: "Don't let the nannies bring comfort to criminals serving their term of custodial punishment. For heaven's sake let's not go soft and forget the victims."

However, one woman, whose partner is serving a 12-month sentence at Maghaberry for assault and threats to kill, said she had a number of concerns about the facilities and treatment of inmates.

"It took nearly five months for him to see a dentist and it took ages to get his medication sorted for his mental health. Drugs are also a really bad problem in there. They are readily available," she said.

The woman added: "Lock-ups are really bad a lot of the time as well. He is locked up from 4.30pm more and more frequently. I have some concerns about the food too. They used to get two hot meals a day and now it is down to one."

In November a damning inspection report described Maghaberry Prison as the most dangerous ever inspected by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales.

Inspectors visited Maghaberry in May and found it in a "state of crisis".

They found that it was "unsafe and unstable" for prisoners and staff.

The report is one of the most critical of any prison in the UK.

Inspectors returned to the jail last week to assess what improvements have been made since the last inspection.

Belfast Telegraph

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