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A get-out-of-jail card for Executive over dilemma of separating prisoners

Ending the practice of housing paramilitary inmates apart is huge headache for Government. Michelle Butler offers an alternative

Published 03/11/2016

Northern Ireland only has one prison for managing high-risk individuals
Northern Ireland only has one prison for managing high-risk individuals

The Northern Ireland Assembly recently debated a motion to end the separated regime at Maghaberry Prison. At present, 42 people are held in separated conditions, which means that they have minimum contact with the general prison population. Only those who request these conditions and meet the requirements set by the Secretary of State are eligible to be detained there. Those who do not, remain in the general prison population.

There are many disadvantages to having a separated regime. These include: the negative impact the management, staffing and resourcing of this regime can have on those imprisoned and staff; its costs; the security challenges involved; as well as the potential for those detained there and staff to experience its conditions as oppressive. The existence of the regime and allegations of misconduct associated with it can also be used to mobilise others to action and/or justify violence.

However, does this mean that now is the right time to end the separated regime?

In August, the UK Government decided to follow other European countries in adopting the use of specialised prison units to manage Islamic extremists. These units would see individuals held in separate conditions, rather than mixed with the general prison population. I argued strongly against this decision, drawing on the experience of Northern Ireland, the size of the prison estate and the difficulties already facing English and Welsh prisons.

Yet, I believe that before any attempt is made to end the use of the separated regime in Northern Ireland, we need to carefully consider a number of factors.

In contrast to the detention of Islamic extremists within UK prisons, there is a long history of detaining those believed to be linked to Irish republicanism and loyalism in separate prison conditions. Historically, how these groups have been treated has led to widespread protests, violence and disorder in prison and the wider community.

As such, the symbolism associated with the separated regime is highly emotive and elicits strong reactions, especially among those directly affected by it. For these reasons, it is highly likely that any move to end the separated regime will lead to sustained protests and disorder in prison and our communities. Such a move may also be used to mobilise additional support for such groups, increasing the potential for violence and disorder to occur and undermining efforts to move on from the past. Of course, a decision to retain the separated regime will also lead to strong feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction for some as well.

Other challenges involved in ending the separated regime include those posed by the small size of our prison estate, limiting our ability to manage those deemed to be "high risk" within the general prison population.

Individuals are usually considered to be high risk because of their offence and/or behaviour.

In other jurisdictions, such as England and Wales, a larger prison estate allows the potential disruptive influence of high-risk individuals to be "diluted" by detaining them across a number of different prisons. This helps to make prisons safe, secure and ordered, while reducing costs and the disruption caused to others.

Unfortunately, this is not an option in Northern Ireland. Due to our small size, we only have one prison designed for managing high-risk individuals, so we cannot minimise the possible influence such groups may have on the rest of the prison population by detaining them in different prisons.

Regardless of whether the separated regime exists or not, individuals considered to be high-risk will continue to be held at Maghaberry Prison and Maghaberry Prison will still need to deal with the consequences of having a concentration of these individuals detained there.

These challenges may become even more difficult for staff if the ending of the separated regime prompts additional violence and intimidation in an effort to force its re-introduction, as has happened in the past.

Staffing levels on the separated regime are higher than those used for the general prison population to reflect the increased security risks involved. The removal of separated conditions would mean that staffing levels may need to be revised to reflect the integration of these individuals in the general prison population, or the risks to prison staff would increase and efforts to ensure prisons are safe, secure, ordered and humane will become more taxing.

All of these factors suggest that any move to end the separated regime at present may involve substantial costs both financial and socially. So, what does that mean for us?

The increased potential for violence to occur, heightened community tensions and the economic costs that may accompany such a move may directly affect us all. More money may be required to deal with this disorder and its aftermath.

Given Government funding throughout Northern Ireland has been curtailed due to the existing economic climate, we may find that spending on health, education and community services will have to be cut to pay for this.

While some might believe that Westminster should pay, Westminster may think differently. The economic uncertainty arising from Brexit also raises questions about how much money Westminster and Stormont will have to fund existing services - let alone additional resources for the management of the possible fallout over ending the separated regime.

But there is another option. What happens in our communities influences what happens in our prisons in the same way that events in prison can impact on our communities. Another way to work towards the ending of the separated regime in Maghaberry Prison is to try to reduce the influence of paramilitary groups within communities and encourage greater integration.

This requires political leadership and support for efforts seeking to resolve the political, social and economic factors that can give rise to and aggravate division.

Attempts to deal with the past, agree a shared future, address paramilitary activity and reduce division can undo the need for a separated regime at Maghaberry Prison as those coming into prison will no longer request to be held in separated conditions.

Ultimately, while it is an option for the Government to discontinue the use of the separated regime, given the factors outlined above, it may be more beneficial to seek to reduce the need for the regime by tackling the wider societal issues behind its use.

Michelle Butler is a lecturer in criminology at Queen's University, Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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