Belfast Telegraph

Overcrowding linked to jail attacks

Overcrowding at Northern Ireland's biggest jail has been blamed for the rise in prisoner on prisoner assaults, the Stormont Assembly has heard.

Democratic Unionist Brenda Hale, whose constituency takes in Maghaberry Prison, said "serious concerns" had been raised about staffing levels at the high security facility in Co Antrim.

The DUP MLA said: "I have had several meetings with prison staff who work in Maghaberry Prison and they have raised serious issues around the staffing there and as a result prisoner on prisoner assaults are up."

Maghaberry houses some of Northern Ireland's most dangerous criminals including murderers, rapists and paramilitaries.

Inmates are held in closely guarded separated units, with tight restrictions on movement and measures to detect hidden guns or communications equipment.

Justice Minister told MLAs the re-opening of a prison block had alleviated some of the overcrowding problems and claimed reconfiguration plans were also being considered.

"Maghaberry is one of the most complex prisons anywhere on these islands given the number of prisoners who are there," added Mr Ford.

"There is work being done to reconfigure it into three mini prisons so that those on remand are kept in different circumstances from those who are sentenced and those who are seen as top security requirements are managed in a different way.

"That makes it easier to provide the support to a broad range of prisoners who are less likely to create major difficulties but it also does mean that because Maghaberry is a single prison coping with such a range of people it is quite difficult to manage all of that."

Meanwhile, MLAs were told that stringent budget cuts being imposed over the next two years would only add to the pressure on already stretched resources.

The Prison Service has undergone a significant overhaul, with a redundancy scheme for older staff and a recruitment drive for new members.

In November 2012, David Black, a long-serving prison officer at Maghaberry was gunned down by dissident republicans while travelling to work.

The 52-year-old was the first prison officer to be killed by terrorists in Northern Ireland in more than two decades.

Later, Sinn Fein's Barry McElduff said he was concerned republican prisoners in Roe House at Maghaberry were being held in solitary confinement for too long.

The West Tyrone MLA said: "Quite a number of prisoners, including some from my own constituency, have been held in solitary confinement for a considerable period of time.

"A number of my Sinn Fein colleagues have met with the prisoners in Roe House and heard their concerns at first hand.

"All prisoners deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and Sinn Fein will continue to campaign for the rights of prisoners."

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