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Revolutionary Maghaberry project helping inmates kick prescription pill addictions



Maghaberry, near Lisburn, County Antrim, is the largest prison in Northern Ireland

Maghaberry, near Lisburn, County Antrim, is the largest prison in Northern Ireland

Maghaberry, near Lisburn, County Antrim, is the largest prison in Northern Ireland

Maghaberry, near Lisburn, County Antrim, is the largest prison in Northern Ireland

Phil Wragg

Phil Wragg


Maghaberry, near Lisburn, County Antrim, is the largest prison in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's top-security jail has launched a major project to help prisoners battling addiction get clean.

As many as 70% of inmates walk through the gates of Maghaberry already addicted to drugs, booze or both - and the daily struggle to catch substances smuggled into the jail is a never-ending challenge for staff.

"There is an epidemic in society with prescription drugs and we are inheriting it in our jails," said Phil Wragg, director of operations at the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

"We have to be realistic about what's going on and what we can do to stop it. When people talk about zero tolerance to drugs, we need to catch ourselves on.

"People are addicted to drugs in society, and that's a huge part of why many people end up behind bars in the first place.

"They're not going to stop taking them just because they walk through our big gates. We need to work with them to show them there's another way, that they can live without drugs - not only when they're released but while they're here. This is what this scheme is all about."

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The pioneering Lagan Project kicked off on February 20 and is so far working with 10 prisoners desperate to kick their addictions to prescription drugs.

The Belfast Telegraph gained exclusive access to the project to meet some of the men taking part, as well as the staff desperate to make it work.

Targeting four of the drugs most widely abused at Maghaberry - opiate Tramadol, pain and anxiety drug Pregabalin, antidepressant Amitriptyline and painkiller Gabapentin - the team are hoping a broad range of techniques, including everything from music therapy and mindfulness to gardening and extra hours in the gym, will make a huge impact.

And as well as increased engagement with the 10 participants, who are housed in a separate landing from the rest of the prisoners at Maghaberry's remand wing, Lagan House, there is a focus on pain management from the medical experts to help the transition.

Rachel Gibbs, from the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, partners with the Northern Ireland Prison Service, explained: "These guys have been hooked on pain medication, and we have to help work them off it.

"It doesn't work long-term if you just make them stop.

"We use all sorts of things like acupuncture and the TENS machine to help them cope with the change. It's a new approach and we're really hopeful it's going to make a big difference."

Coming off long-term medication can also have a huge impact on prisoners' stress levels, so the group is offered occupational, sensory and music therapy as well as sessions in mindfulness.

Davy Savage, head of residence and prisoner safety at Maghaberry, said: "When this idea first came up, we got some strange looks from colleagues.

"But we've got to keep on trying to help really change these people, and if it works and they end up back on the outside free from drugs and in a better way than they were when they came to us, then we're doing a good thing. We have to try."

However, the very fact there is a need for a focused anti-drug project in the prison at all has stunned some with links to the facility.

One woman whose son is serving time at Maghaberry, said: "If there's a need for a drug-free place like this, then what does that say about the rest of the jail?

"It's coming down with drugs. When you go for visits, you can see loads of the lads are out of it. How can it be that they need a drug-free bit? Should it not all be drug free?"

But the prison authorities explained the problem was huge and complex - and said the project should be considered a positive thing.

One of the biggest frustrations facing the staff at Maghaberry, according to Mr Wragg, is the fact so many inmates are regularly granted day release by the courts.

He said "the majority" return with prescription drugs hidden in their bodies to be handed out to fellow prisoners.

"Even if we object, and we object a lot, we are often overruled by the courts," added Mr Wragg.

"It's frustrating, absolutely. Somebody is let out for a funeral and they come back packed full of tablets, and very often that's it in supply in prison.

"We know people are using body cavities and we try to keep ahead of the game through our methodologies of testing, technology and mandatory checks.

"We have a drug detecting policy - we use dogs and we screen people - but we're dealing with a difficult matter here.

"Right across the prison service, we have around 1,400 people in custody.

"In Maghaberry, there are up to 850, and people are in and out every single day of the week - as well as people coming straight from court. As shocking as it might sound, the majority will attempt to bring stuff back into the prison.

"Even if the person out on day release isn't a prolific drug misuser themselves, someone else may know they're going out and will want to use the opportunity to get drugs back in."

So while the fight to detect and police drugs carries on, Mr Wragg hopes the Lagan Project will help tackle the problem from the other side. "It's like a 360 view of managing a problem that's not just serious here, but right across society," he said.

"One part is exactly the same as the PSNI - policing, detecting and managing.

"But now we're going one step further with rehabilitation and therapeutic intervention - we want them leaving here better than they came in.

"And we don't want them to come back."

The project is paid for by existing prison funding, and can cater for 10 prisoners during each 12-week run.

Already 30 more inmates have their names the waiting list and staff hope it can eventually be rolled out throughout the prison.

Mr Wragg said: "We want these people better when they leave than when they came.

"If that means we've had to work to get them off drugs so they're ready to go back clean into society, then that's got to be a good thing. If they can lead a crime-free, useful life, we've had a success."

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