When the head of Northern Ireland’s prison service says that Maghaberry Prison is not really fit for purpose as it stands and that there are serious problems with the prison staff, then it is time for everyone, and especially new Justice Minister, David Ford, to listen carefully.
Of course, his comments are not new — the prison has already been subject to several damning official reports — but they are candid and blunt.
A major part of the problem is that the prison is being run by staff who operate in the way that they did during the Troubles when paramilitaries made up the bulk of the prison population. Now Maghaberry is run by a regime totally unsuited to the new prison population and which does not reflect the demographic make-up of the province. In those circumstances it is difficult to introduce new methods of looking after prisoners.
The list of problems goes on and on. Overcrowding is a major issue. So is the lack of modern facilities, with the head of the Prison Service describing the jail as the worst built in the history of these islands. The last governor of the jail left a very short period of time after his arrival when his personal details were found in a prisoner’s cell, meaning that the jail now lacks coherent and innovative on-the-ground management.
The Prison Service is suffering from the fact that it did not get a Patten-style revamp like the RUC and the cost of paying off old-time staff and recruiting new ones is prohibitive in these financially stricken times. Yet, the inescapable fact remains that Maghaberry is a powder keg of problems which could erupt at any moment.
It is vital that the Justice Minister conducts an intensive and speedy review of the Prison Service and that particular attention is paid to the problems of Maghaberry. History shows that trouble brewing behind bars can often produce a violent reaction outside. That is history no one wants to see repeating itself in this province.