Belfast Telegraph

Maghaberry prison officer admits negligence over death of suicidal inmate Colin Bell

By Paul Higgins

A Maghaberry prison officer has admitted he had not kept a proper watch on a suicidal prisoner who hanged himself.

Daniel Barclay was due to go on trial at Craigavon Crown Court on a charge of misconduct in public office but instead, defence QC Gavan Duffy asked for the charge to be put to him again.

Standing in the dock flanked by two former colleagues, Belfast man Barclay (34) pleaded guilty to the offence, admitting that he had "willfully neglected to perform his duty without reasonable excuse or justification, in that he failed to carry out and record the appropriate observations in respect of a prisoner at risk, namely Colin Bell" on a date between 30 July and 2 August 2008.

Bell, a 34-year-old convicted murderer, hanged himself in the "safer cell" at Maghaberry prison when he was on heightened suicide watch after repeated bouts of self harming, meaning prison guards had to check on him every 15 minutes.

Having taken his life at the fourth attempt, his body lay undiscovered in the cell for around 40 minutes and an investigation by then Prison Ombudsman Pauline McCabe was highly critical of many of the working practices at Northern Ireland's top security jail, making a total of some 44 recommendations which have since been implemented.

Among the recommendations were:

• Prison staff to be made aware of the policies relating to observation cells and self-harm and suicide prevention;

• Prison staff, including night custody officers, to be told that the use of makeshift beds is strictly forbidden;

• Televisions to be removed from all secure pod areas where staff should be monitoring prisoners;

• Staff to be banned from smoking at their posts and from holding other jobs that might affect their performance.

Eight night custody officers who were recommended for dismissal have since been reinstated but Barclay, whose address is subject to court-imposed reporting restrictions given the threat on prison officers from dissident republicans, was the only officer to face charges.

The governor and deputy governor at Maghaberry were replaced after a review into the death of Bell, but did not face disciplinary action.

Bell (34) had been serving a life sentence with a minimum tariff of eight years for the murder of Bangor man Michael O'Hare after setting fire to his flat in 2003.

The killer, who had a lengthy criminal record, had been on a drink and drug binge celebrating his release from jail in March 2003 when he smashed his way into his victim's flat and waited on him returning, targeting Mr O'Hare after he banned Bell from his flat on a previous occasion.

Bell waited for his victim to fall asleep before setting fire to furniture in the flat and during police questioning, Bell told officers he set fire to the property to destroy any fingerprints he had left.

In court on Monday, prosecuting QC Toby Hedworth said that in due course he would be inviting Judge Patrick Lynch QC to view a 90 minute DVD which shows events in Bell's cell "juxtaposed simultaneously" with the activities of Barclay in the monitoring pod.

He agreed with the judge that given the sensitive nature of the DVD, the CCTV footage would best be viewed in private.

Mr Duffy asked for Barclay to be released on bail pending the completion of probation pre-sentence reports and Judge Lynch granted both applications, adjourning passing sentence until March 21.

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