One of the worst I have seen: Prison inspector's verdict on Ulster's top jail HMP Maghaberry
Northern Ireland's only high-security prison has been branded the UK's most dangerous, with inmates and staff living in fear in Victorian-era conditions.
HMP Maghaberry, near Lisburn, is "a prison in crisis", with "unsafe and unstable" conditions, according to the joint assessment by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI).
Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, Nick Hardwick, who was commissioned to assist the CJINI inspection team, said: "This is one of the worst prisons I have ever seen and the most dangerous prison I have been to."
He said it would struggle to meet UN minimum standards for prisons worldwide and that if the situation was not addressed a major risk of "serious disorder or loss of life" would remain.
Mr Hardwick said conditions inside were akin to those of a Victorian jail. "It feels a bit like going back in time," he added. "Dickens could write about Maghaberry without batting an eyelid."
Maghaberry houses almost 1,000 prisoners, including around 50 people with loyalist and republican paramilitary affiliations who are held in separated accommodation.
Republicans have issued death threats against prison staff in recent years, and in 2012 long-serving officer David Black was shot dead by dissidents.
Inspectors who carried out May's unannounced visit identified a series of serious failings in the regime that had fostered a volatile atmosphere, with the prison on the verge of a riot.
Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Brendan McGuigan, described the worrying conditions found by the inspection team.
"Maghaberry had become unsafe and unstable and was in a downward spiral that could have led to serious consequences," he said. "This was, in our collective opinion, a prison in crisis."
A month before the inspection was carried out, a number of prisoners set fire to a storehouse, with smoke filling an adjoining accommodation block where inmates were locked in cells. Inspectors said the fire at Erne House almost cost lives, and they called for a separate investigation into the event.
In three out of four measuring standards used by inspectors - safety, respect and purposeful activity - Maghaberry was given the lowest ranking possible.
For the first time ever, inspectors felt the need to issue an "urgent action plan" to prison authorities in the immediate wake of the inspection. In another unprecedented move, inspectors are to return to the jail for a follow-up visit in January. Follow-ups are usually conducted two to three years after inspection.
Inspectors were particularly critical of the management regime at Maghaberry.
Two months after the inspection, the governor Alan Longwell left his post. He was replaced by former governor of HMP Belmarsh in London, Phil Wragg.
Stormont's Justice Minister David Ford insisted action had already been taken to address the failings.
"The appointment of Phil Wragg as governor, and the refreshed experienced senior leadership team put in place at the prison, has already led to improvements in a number of areas, and this will continue," he said.