Review into care of vulnerable Northern Ireland prison inmates delayed until 2020
A long-awaited Stormont review into how vulnerable prisoners are monitored in Northern Ireland's prisons is not expected to be completed until next year - more than three-and-a-half years after it was first announced.
Investigative news website The Detail reported that the review is now being carried out by health regulator the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA).
An "immediate review into vulnerable people in prison" was first announced in November 2016 by then Justice Minister Claire Sugden following the deaths of five people in custody over 12 months - four of which were suspected suicides.
Raising concerns around mental health in prisons, Ms Sugden told the Assembly that the Departments of Health and Justice (DoJ) would jointly conduct the review. But the NI Prison Service has confirmed that "no joint review has been produced".
That's despite the Department of Justice saying last September that the review was "ongoing with an expectation that the report will be delivered in the autumn" of 2018. It has now emerged that the RQIA was subsequently commissioned by health officials, with the agreement of the DoJ, to complete the review and only given the task last December.
This is expected by March 2020 but its report and recommendations will be a matter for future Stormont ministers to consider. Since 2007, a total of 55 people have died while in custody in Northern Ireland's prisons.
The most recent was on August 23 when a 62-year-old male prisoner at HMP Magilligan died in hospital. An RQIA spokesperson said: "RQIA staff met with Department of Health policy leads in December 2018 to discuss completion of a review of prison healthcare for vulnerable prisoners.
"Preparatory work to support this review has commenced. The review will include all prisons and is aiming to complete by March 2020."
Prisons expert and campaigner Professor Phil Scraton is calling for an independent inquiry.
He said: "Despite previous reassurances, inexplicably the 'immediacy' of the internal review has been delayed until 2020. Over a decade has passed since the necessity and urgency of reform to address the plight of vulnerable prisoners was identified.
"It is now essential that an inter-disciplinary, independent and research-based review of mental health services in Northern Ireland prisons is commissioned.
"It would require full co-operation of the Departments of Health and Justice."
Last November, Chief inspector of Criminal Justice Brendan McGuigan said officers at Maghaberry Prison were making renewed efforts to identify the most vulnerable prisoners.
The high-security jail has a significant proportion of inmates with mental illness and a series of tragic deaths and incidents have occurred there. Mr McGuigan put much of the progress down to good leadership by new governor David Kennedy.