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Watchdog's concerns for Northern Ireland inmates held for years in solitary

By Allan Preston

Published 06/09/2016

Worried: Tom McGonigle
Worried: Tom McGonigle

Northern Ireland's prisons watchdog has expressed concern after it emerged that some Maghaberry inmates have spent years in solitary confinement.

An investigation by The Detail website looked at the conditions of 10 prisoners held in Maghaberry, all of whom were kept alone for more than 100 days in a row each.

One prisoner was reported to have spent 1,813 consecutive days in solitary (almost five years), with three others enduring stints of more than 500 days.

In Northern Ireland, prisoners are sent to a Care and Supervision Unit (CSU) where they can be kept alone in a cell for up to 22 hours.

United Nations inspectors have hit out at such conditions for prisoners, saying solitary confinement for more than 15 days in a row should be banned.

Prisons Ombudsman Tom McGonigle admitted that the lengthy isolation could be harmful for prisoners, but the different cases could often be complex.

"These figures are particularly worrying because a lot of prisoners who end up in confinement are already damaged emotionally and psychologically before they go into prison," he told the Irish Times.

He added that this could lead to a negative cycle of bad behaviour and solitary and that the situation was difficult to cope with for prisoners and prison staff alike, while also making re-integration of prisoners even more difficult.

Prisoners in solitary include those with mental health issues, inmates deemed at risk from the other prisoners and those who have broken prison rules.

It's understood that among those who have served the longest periods in solitary are dissident republican paramilitary suspects.

The Prison Service disagree with the labelling of the CSU as solitary confinement stating prisoners have access to a daily shower, telephone and are allowed up to an hour in a gym or courtyard.

Mr McGonigle has disputed this saying: "The Care and Supervision Unit was formerly known as the segregation block, and prisoners called it 'the boards', but they know what it is. I know what it is. It's solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day."

The Ombudsman has called for greater co-operation between the Health and Justice Ministers on how mentally disordered offenders are dealt with.

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