Inmates 'strip-searched too often'
Women prisoners in Northern Ireland are being strip-searched far too often, a damning new inspection report has found.
The Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) said inmates at Ash House - the region's only female prison - were subjected to an unnecessary and disproportionate number of strip searches.
"All women were needlessly strip searched on arrival and randomly after visits, which was excessive," the report said.
The CJI carried out separate inspections on Ash House and Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre which share a huge site on the outskirts of south Belfast.
Findings for both institutions were equally scathing with concerns raised over safety, rehabilitation and frequent lock-downs among the key issues.
Ash House accommodates 57 prisoners, including some of Northern Ireland's most notorious female killers like Hazel Stewart, Julie McGinley and Jacqueline Crymble.
Although the unit was clean and physical conditions were mostly good, inspectors said the site was unsuitable.
There was evidence of verbal intimidation from the juveniles and women were losing out because of frequent lock-downs at the adjacent YOC.
Inspectors also found that too many prisoners felt victimised by staff.
"Overall, this was a disappointing inspection. In particular because women continued to be held in a predominantly male prison which was having a significant and intractable impact upon outcomes they experienced. Women were reasonably well cared for but they were inevitably marginalised and restricted in their access to facilities and services.
"Many security arrangements were overly restrictive, often instigated to address issues in the YOC, and had a disproportionate consequential impact on women."
The report found that levels of purposeful activity aimed at assisting rehabilitation had deteriorated since the last inspection two years ago.
"Only the long-promised closure and replacement of Ash House would resolve the problems we saw. Recent instability in the management team had also contributed to the problems we highlight, and there was a clear gap evident in leadership and direction," it said.
At Hydebank Wood inspectors were equally disappointed and blamed the lack of continuity in senior management coupled with a disengaged and indifferent attitude of some staff for the poor findings.
Safety was a major concern at the facility which houses 171 young men aged between 18 and 21. Inspectors found lessons had not been learned from recent deaths in custody and there was a complacent attitude towards self harm incidents.
"Care provided to the most vulnerable could be improved," said the report.
Again, most prisoners spent too long locked in their cells and lacked opportunity to spend time in the open air. Activities to address offending behaviour, literacy lessons and drug counselling were also often cancelled at short notice because of the frequent lock-downs.
The report noted: "There was significant regime slippage, frequent and unpredictable lock-downs and activities were often cancelled at short notice, all of which was fundamentally disresepectful. Management and leadership of learning and skills were poor and co-ordination needed to be improved.
"There were not enough activity places, and what was available was poorly utilised. It was of particular concern that only a small number of prisoners accessed work or education regularly and that levels of attainment and accreditation were low."
Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, has made 156 recommendations for improvement for both facilities.
He said: "The new leadership team in place at Hydebank Wood YOC and Ash House must work to deliver fundamental improvement outcomes for prisoners. A radical re-think is also required to the approach to the imprisonment of women in Northern Ireland, in order to improve standards and opportunities.
"These inspection reports demonstrate, once again, how imperative it is for focus to be maintained on the wider reform of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the full implementation of the Prison Review Team recommendations to be achieved."
The inspections were carried out by a multi-disciplinary team including Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons, the CJI, the Education and Training Inspectorate for Northern Ireland and the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority in February this year.
Reacting to the critical publication, Prison Service Director General Sue McAllister said there had been a number of major changes at Hydebank and Ash House since the inspection was carried out.
She said: "Whilst I acknowledge the negative findings of both reports, it must be borne in mind that this inspection was carried out at what was a very challenging time for the Prison Service, particularly at Hydebank Wood.
"Since this inspection was undertaken there have been major changes. A new management team is in place, supported by a director of offender policy and operations and a director of rehabilitation, both of which are based at headquarters.
"Issues of drug misuse are now tackled in a dynamic, intelligence-led manner and exciting plans for the creation of a Secure College, which will concentrate on the provision of essential skills for prisoners enhancing their prospects of employment post release, are under development."
Ms McAllister also acknowledged that housing male and female prisoners in such close proximity was far from ideal and said they were committed to finding a new separate facility for women offenders.