Belfast Telegraph

Vulnerable inmates failed by the system

Editor's Viewpoint

There is no doubt that many of those who end up in prison are suffering from various degrees of mental health problems, often exacerbated by addiction to drugs and/or alcohol.

It is a moot point whether some of those prisoners should even be in jail.

For as the latest report by Criminal Justice Inspection reveals, Northern Ireland's main prison at Maghaberry is not a suitable environment for those with serious mental health problems.

Two years ago the jail was described as one of the most dangerous in western Europe. Progress has been made since then with healthcare and education provision having improved.

And the report notes the determination of the leadership team and staff to stabilise conditions.

But it also says that lessons have not been learned from past problems and that care plans for some men at risk of suicide and self-harm remain unacceptable.

That is an indictment of the prison but also of the justice system which places people in that environment knowing the failings there. It has to be accepted that staff at Maghaberry are not fully equipped to deal with the range of mental health problems which confront them.

The work of warders is onerous and their first priority will always be to ensure those who are in prison remain there until their due release. It is expecting too much of them to be also properly qualified to deal with the serious healthcare problems of some inmates.

That does not absolve the system of all blame for the 14 deaths of inmates in the jail since 2012 or the horrific self-mutilation one prisoner inflicted on himself, as reported in this newspaper today.

Damien Lynch, the father of the prisoner who blinded himself and caused other serious self-harm, feels justified in claiming that lessons from that incident have not been learned.

He argues that other young men are being failed by the system, and it is difficult to deny his claim given the weight of evidence from successive reports.

So, what can be done? It was suggested by the last Justice Minister here that a secure unit for people with serious mental health problems could be provided in Northern Ireland following a review of care for vulnerable prisoners.

However, that review has been put on ice following the collapse of power-sharing. That is almost criminal.

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