Review of vulnerable prisoners in wake of suicide and self-harm incidents
Stormont ministers have launched a review of how vulnerable prisoners are monitored in Northern Ireland prisons following a number of recent suicides and self-harm incidents.
Justice Minister Claire Sugden and Health Minister Michelle O'Neill are jointly undertaking the probe.
Five people have died in custody in the last 12 months - four of whom were suspected suicides.
Prison authorities were also heavily criticised in a recent damning report by the Prisoner Ombudsman after an inmate inflicted extreme self-harm on himself in Maghaberry high security jail in June 2014.
Ms Sugden announced the review in a statement to the Assembly.
"Minister O'Neill and I have agreed to conduct an immediate review of vulnerable people in custody," she said.
"Officials from both Departments are now working together to define the structure, scope and timeframe of this review.
"I know members appreciate the scale of the challenge in respect of mental health in prisons and the need for joined up partnership working to address that challenge.
"I hope members will also agree that at a strategic and operational level, steps are already being taken to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals in custody."
Ms Sugden said full investigations of the suicide incidents inside Maghaberry were ongoing and officials were also endeavouring to develop a "community response plan" to prevent further deaths. She said the Prison Service's suicide and self-harm policy was also being re-examined.
The minister outlined the extent of mental health issues in the region's prisons.
"On 17 November 2016 the prison population totalled 1,533, of these 417 were recorded as having a mental health illness and a further 740 prisoners recorded as having an addiction. That amounts to just over 75% of the prison population," she said.
"The needs of those in prison are complex, and in comparison to wider society, there are disproportionately higher numbers of prisoners who present with mental health problems and personality disorders. In addition, the problems associated with alcohol and substance misuse, mental illness and generally poor coping skills are all higher among the prison population.
"Research also tells us that people in custody are more likely to have either undiagnosed or unmet health needs. For many their first mental health diagnosis occurs only when they are in custody."
The minister added: "However we portray it, the custody environment is not designed to deal with those experiencing severe chronic mental health issues. Whatever level of training we provide to staff, they remain prison officers.
"The Northern Ireland Prison Service (Nips) cannot meet this challenge alone, we need the ongoing help and support of the Department of Health, other departments, and partners across the justice system, and in the wider community.
"Prison officers play a vital role in assessing and supporting vulnerable offenders during periods of crisis. Countless lives have been saved by prison officers who identify prisoners at risk and care for them successfully. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the work they do around the clock, keeping prisoners as safe as possible in very challenging circumstances.
"The management of the Prison Service, governors and their teams work tirelessly to reduce the rate of self-harm and to prevent suicide. Identifying and supporting prisoners with mental health issues remains a high priority for Nips. However, not every episode of self-harm can be prevented and tragically, some suicides will happen despite the best efforts of staff."