There is grave public disquiet over the death of Colin Bell, who committed suicide in Maghaberry Prison last year while staff in a CCTV monitoring unit, who should have been looking after him, made tea and chatted.
Seventeen officers were suspended as part of a wider and separate investigation by the Prison Service, and the Prisons Ombudsman Pauline McCabe has called for disciplinary investigations into Governor Alan Longwell and his Deputy Steve Davis.
The catalogue of errors around the time of Colin Bell's suicide makes grim reading. The CCTV footage showed that over a period of 14 minutes on the evening of July 31, the prisoner made no fewer than three attempts to hang himself and could be seen walking around his cell with a ligature in his hands.
Tragically, his fourth attempt at suicide was successful, but inexplicably, he lay dead for 38 minutes before his body was spotted. During Colin Bell's harrowing final hour of his life, the staff at Maghaberry failed to carry out 15-minute checks, as required,
and as the dreadful drama was unfolding in his cell, prison staff were chatting, watching television and drinking tea. In one case, an officer rested on a makeshift bed.
Such seeming neglect of a prisoner, who was placed in a cell for observation after a series self-harm incidents, virtually beggars belief. Members of the public are aghast that a professional prison service was so incompetent in discharging its duty of protecting a clearly vulnerable prisoner.
Another disturbing dimension to this dreadful affair is that Colin Bell tried to contact the Samaritans
some 73 times in a 30-hour period before his death, by means of a link-up facility in his cell. The Ombudsman's Report indicated that 63 of these attempts resulted in an engaged tone.
Assuming, therefore, that around 10 of these calls must have been successful, or partially so, questions need to be asked of the Samaritan service, and its director has rightly initiated “a comprehensive review” of the case.
The NIO Prisons Minister Paul Goggins and the Northern Ireland Prison Service Director Robin Masefield have apologised to Mr Bell's family. The
Minister said he intended that “this tragic death will be a watershed for the Northern Ireland Prison Service”. He also underlined his determination to ensure that the Prison Service would instil a “culture of care for all prisoners, but especially those who pose a danger to themselves.”
This may be easier said than done, but it is clear that a culture of negligence and self-interest at the expense of prisoners' welfare and safety exists in parts of the Prison Service. Further measures undoubtedly need to be enforced and rigorously monitored, and all disciplinary measures need to be taken to ensure that prison staff at all levels are doing their job properly.
It is absolutely appalling that a vulnerable prisoner was able to kill himself while those supposed to be protecting him failed to pay attention. The Prison Service not only needs to protect the public from those who have broken the law, but it also needs to protect prisoners from themselves. In the case of Mr Bell it is clearly, and tragically, too late.