Union rubbishes denial of jail crisis after another suicide in Maghaberry
Senior jail staff in Northern Ireland have denied Maghaberry Prison is in crisis after two inmates took their own lives in the space of two weeks.
On Tuesday night Barry Cavan - who was in his 20s and serving a life sentence for the 2012 murder of 24-year-old busker David 'Dee' Corr - took his own life.
Two weeks earlier Gerard Mulligan (44) took his own life while on remand for murdering his father.
It's understood that in the last year five inmates have died in Maghaberry - four from their own hand and one from natural causes.
A statement from the Prison Governors Association (PGA NI), which represents senior management, said "many of the groups saying our prisons were in crisis have little or no prison experience".
Yesterday the investigative news website The Detail revealed that one in four prison officers recruited since 2012 - 129 out of 511 - had quit their jobs.
They had been intended to replace 520 experienced officers who took voluntary redundancy.
Stressful working conditions and an ongoing pay dispute were identified as key factors for the new staff leaving their jobs.
It's reported that officers recruited after 2012 had an average starting salary of £19,055 - compared to £36,083 for officers starting in 2002.
Finlay Spratt, chair of the Prison Officers' Association (POA), said overstretched warders were being asked to do the "impossible" and that the Northern Ireland Prison Service was heading towards the "turmoil" of the struggling English system, which has reported a record 99 prisoner suicides this year.
The PGA NI said it had long placed on record the problems facing the Prison Service.
These include "significant staff shortages", particularly at Maghaberry, and a recruitment and retention policy that did not match the number of staff exiting the service.
Other concerns included drugs and mental health/personality disorder challenges, made worse by outdated buildings and facilities.
The statement said that while prisons were "not therapeutic communities staffed by qualified nurses... our members and their staff do save lives on a daily basis, 365 days a year".
It added: "The recent incidents of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in custody need to be put into context and the problems already highlighted above are not helping when looking after the many challenging and vulnerable prisoners in our care."
The PGA NI has called for a Stormont Executive task force "to redress the legacy of 'cuts too deep, too quickly'".
Mr Spratt said that further prisoner deaths were inevitable without change.
"It used to be there was four officers looking after 50, now we only have two looking after 50. Some of those could just be female officers," he said.
"They're bringing in the National Offender Management Service here, and it's failed in England. The prisons there are in turmoil, and that's where we're headed."
SDLP MLA Alex Attwood called on Justice Minister Claire Sugden to act decisively.
"First and foremost, I want to extend my deepest sympathy to Mr Cavan's family. This is a terrible incident and we should remember their pain at this difficult time," he said.
"The spike in deaths in prison should be addressed with decisive intervention and management across the board, not least of all by the minister.
"We all need reassurances that the minister is on top of the critical issues that are now faced in our prison estate."