Dangerous prisoners get keys to their cells
Some of Northern Ireland's most notorious criminals are among 200 prisoners who have been handed the keys to their own cells.
Inmates can roam in and out of their cells under a scheme that rewards good behaviour and is aimed at “protecting their privacy”, prison chiefs have admitted.
They include prisoners serving life sentences at the high-security Maghaberry Prison, along with inmates at Magilligan and Hydebank Wood.
The Northern Ireland Prison Service said the scheme was limited to a “small number” of convicts as a privilege and was strictly monitored by staff.
According to documents obtained by this newspaper, there were 102 prisoners at Maghaberry Prison with access to their own keys in December 2008.
Ninety of those are held at Erne House, which houses mainly life-sentence prisoners including some of Ulster’s most notorious killers. Another 12 are in Martin House which houses only life sentence prisoners.
Some of the notorious inmates in Erne House include Stephen Scott, serving life for the horrific murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend Sylvia Fleming, and Jim O’Malley who was caged for battering prostitute Irene Clifford to death with a wheel brace in 1991.
The Prison Service have not said whether Scott or O’Malley are among those who have access to theri own keys.
But a Prison Service statement said: “Erne mostly houses lifer prisoners ... in Erne all single cells have a new type lock which enables prisoners to hold their own keys.
“Martin House is solely life sentence prisoners who have progressed well through the prison system and who are approaching their tariff.”
At Magilligan Prison, inmates who are held in low category or supervision areas, including Foyleview and the new Alpha block, have access to keys.
The prison was unable to provide definitive figures, but said between 60 and 70 inmates are housed in Foyleview, while another 50 can be detained at the Alpha block which was opened last year.
A spokesman for the prison said inmates could use their keys at night to access the toilet, adding: “These keys are used to protect a prisoner's privacy. Staff hold a master key which can override this system at any time. These keys do not allow prisoners to leave their wings.”
Meanwhile Hydebank Wood, which holds female prisoners and young offenders, confirmed that cell keys were allocated to a maximum of 100 prisoners who comply with a series of strict eligibility requirements.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Prison Service said key allocations to inmates were strictly monitored and controlled by staff.
However Ulster Unionist peer Lord Maginnis described the scheme as “dangerous”, adding: “Prisons should be a form of social retribution and not a badge of honour. I think we have, in general, lost our sense of justice.”