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More pets being kept at Maghaberry than any other high security jail in UK

By Lisa Smyth

Inmates at Maghaberry Prison have more pets than at any other high security prison in the UK, it has emerged.

According to official figures, 27 animals are being kept by inmates at three UK prisons - with 18 budgies at Maghaberry, seven budgies at Wakefield Prison in West Yorkshire and two guinea pigs at Cornton Vale prison in Stirling, Scotland.

While Maghaberry Prison is home to some of the most dangerous men in the UK, the revelation that they share the wings with 18 budgies is reminiscent of the 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz.

It was a largely fictionalised account of the life of Robert Stroud, who was ordered to serve life without parole after knifing to death a guard at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas in 1916.

While Stroud was portrayed in the movie as mild mannered, in reality he was a violent criminal who was well-known for his short temper and savage outbursts.

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The movie, which featured Burt Lancaster in the starring role, tells the story of Stroud who was allowed by authorities to keep birds and subsequently became an ornithology expert.

The criteria to keep birds at Maghaberry is not known, but prisoners there can buy budgie and canary seed to feed their feathered friends at the facility's tuck shop.

The official figures of pets in prisons were released by the Ministry of Justice to the Daily Mail.

Upper Bann UUP candidate Doug Beattie, formerly a member of the Stormont Justice committee, has welcomed the news that Maghaberry prisoners are leading the way when it comes to keeping budgies.

"If you had said they were keeping dogs or cats that would have been a different matter, but budgies are small and probably have very little impact," he said. "However, what it probably does do is help address loneliness, feelings of isolation and mental health problems that prisoners may be experiencing.

"I think it is a positive thing that should be welcomed."

In 2015 life sentence prisoners at Maghaberry helped create the habitat for around 20 pairs of breeding lapwings which have made their home on a marshy no-man's-land dominated by razor wire and lookouts behind reinforced glass.

The six acres of waste ground lies between the perimeter fence and wall of the jail near Lisburn.

A combination of swampy short grass because of the clay ground left over from the prison's foundations and the lack of predators like foxes has created the ideal conditions for breeding chicks, retired prison guard and gardener Denis Smyth said.

Maghaberry Prison has frequently come under fire for conditions there with Nick Hardwick - Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales - branding it the most dangerous he had ever visited in November 2015. Inspectors visited in May of 2015 and found it in a "state of crisis".

They said it was "unsafe and unstable" for prisoners and staff. At the time, the report was one of the most critical of any prison in the UK.

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