Threat to prison officers from dissident killers remains severe, says the man in charge of Northern Ireland jails
In the first of a week-long series of special reports to mark Prisons Week, Ronnie Armour, director general of the prison service here, tells of the ‘very, very challenging’ issues facing his staff
The man in charge of Northern Ireland's jails has warned that the threat against his staff from dissident republicans is still "severe".
Ronnie Armour revealed that the PSNI has warned a number of prison officers that their lives are at risk, causing some to move house and others to have protective measures installed at their homes.
It is known that the names of some staff from the maximum security Maghaberry prison have been painted along with targets and threats on walls in west Belfast, Londonderry and Lurgan.
And Mr Armour, the director general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, said many staff still routinely check their cars for booby-trap bombs.
"We encourage our staff to be very alert to their security," he added.
Two prison officers, David Black and Adrian Ismay, have been killed by dissidents in the last six years.
But Mr Armour denied that dissidents, who are held separately at Maghaberry in Roe House, or loyalists, who are in Bush House, are able to rule the roost.
He insisted that prison staff still work "effectively" throughout the jail, despite ongoing tensions and a level of intimidation against them.
He added: "There are no no-go areas.
"And the encouraging thing for me is that our staff operate in a professional way as they do their job, day and daily."
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Armour, who took over at the helm of the Prison Service in February last year, revealed that:
- Drugs are still a massive problem at Maghaberry, where they were found in 325 separate searches in the last year;
- One prisoner had 1,200 tablets in his possession;
- Suicides are a major concern;
- New strategies have been implemented to try to help prisoners with mental health problems and addictions;
- The absence of a Stormont Executive has made it difficult for the Prison Service to forward-plan;
- Officials are confident that a new report from prisons inspectors will confirm that improvements have been made to safety at Maghaberry and the running of the jail;
- And there are no plans to scrap pre-release day trips like the one undertaken recently by five convicted murderers to the Mourne Mountains.
On the drugs question, Mr Armour said that in the past year 2,500 random drugs tests were carried out and three in four prisoners passed, which he said was an indication of the success of the authorities' pro-active approach.
He acknowledged that there was a determination to get drugs into Maghaberry, but added: "We are equally determined to stop them."
The smuggling of drugs by visitors is widespread, but prisoners returning to the jail from outside court appearances and from home visits have also been trying to get drugs past security checks.
Mr Armour added: "We will search every individual, but it is very difficult for us to know what is secreted within their bodies, which is why we separate some prisoners from the rest of the population until we are satisfied they don't have something hidden or until we have recovered what they do have."
On the wider day-to-day operation of the jail, Mr Armour insisted that conditions have improved at Maghaberry, which was branded the most dangerous prison in the UK in 2015.
A joint assessment by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland said Maghaberry was a prison in crisis, with "unsafe and unstable" conditions.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, Nick Hardwick, said Maghaberry was the most dangerous prison he had ever seen.
But Mr Armour said he was confident that the next report from inspection teams, which is due shortly, would present a very different picture of Maghaberry.
Mr Armour said: "A huge amount of work has been carried out over the last couple of years to turn things around. Maghaberry is a much, much safer place than it was three years ago.
"Back then, the number of lockdowns would have been extremely high, but during the summer, which is a period of pressure for us because of staff on leave, we had one restricted association, and that is unprecedented.
"We are working hard to ensure that all of our prisons remain stable, that there's a predictable regime and that we have appropriate staffing levels right across our three sites (Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank)."
In the last week, prison governors in England and Wales have expressed alarm over the "crisis" in their jails, where prisoners have been regularly involved in disturbances.
The Prisons Minister Rory Stewart also announced that staff in jails in England and Wales were to be armed with pepper spray to control unruly inmates.
But Mr Armour said the difficulties across the water were not mirrored in Northern Ireland and while pepper spray is already available in jails here, it has never been used.
He added: "I think there is strong visible leadership inside Maghaberry and I believe that is making a huge difference."
Mr Armour also said Maghaberry now has an appropriate staffing level, after the recruitment of 400 new staff in the wake of the departure of 500 officers, who took redundancy packages in 2012/13. But he admitted that issues remain, adding: "The work of prison staff is very, very challenging and it is very, very demanding. They are dealing on a daily basis with some of the most challenging, difficult and complex individuals in society."
He also said the absence of an Assembly meant the Prison Service budget was set year on year, making it difficult for staff to forward-plan.
Mr Armour added: "I have worked closely with colleagues in the Department of Justice to make sure we have the resources that we need.
"We have a very significant recruitment campaign under way and that has been resourced by the department to ensure we can maintain our staffing levels.
"However, I look forward to the day when a Justice Minister is back in place, along with a justice committee, because prisons are sensitive and they can be controversial and I think it is right and proper that I, as director general, am held to account for the work that I and my staff do."
Another source of concern at Maghaberry has been the number of prisoners who have taken their own lives, with criticism from relatives of the care that their loved ones received.
Mr Armour said: "Every death in custody is one too many.
"I couldn't over-emphasise the profound effect that it has on staff when someone takes their own life in a prison context and I know that pales into insignificance in terms of the suffering of families.
"But prison staff do everything they possibly can to support vulnerable individuals.
"Many of the 1,400 people we have in our prisons today are vulnerable and on average we put around 30 people a day on our 'supporting prisoners at risk' programme to try and keep them safe.
"Sadly, that is not always possible if someone is determined to take their own life."
He said prisoners couldn't all be supervised and observed all the time, though he did reveal that in the past year jail staff have saved the lives of 12 men in Maghaberry and that new strategies are in place in a bid to tackle suicide and self-harming.
Mr Armour denied claims that the prison authorities weren't doing enough to help inmates with mental health problems, ranging from depression and mild anxiety right through to people who were psychotic.
He said that more than 4,000 people go into prisons here every year and all of them received what he called 'robust' health checks, which disclose complex medical needs.
"A quarter of the people coming into prison at the moment have mental health issues and 50% have addiction issues and over 70% have few or no educational qualifications."
Mr Armour added that his officers are working closely with several outside agencies, like Start 360, to reduce the demand for drugs and tackle addiction in jail.
He added: "We are also trying to ensure that the 850 men in Maghaberry, for example, are engaged on a daily basis on purposeful activity around education or in the gym or working on horticulture in the garden or in catering."
Mr Armour declined to comment on recent newspaper reports that a man on remand in Maghaberry, charged with raping a two-week-old baby, was being guarded around the clock.
He said: "I can't discuss an individual case, but with everyone who comes into the prison system we will assess their case carefully and we will consider where it is appropriate to house them and we ensure that our staff are aware of any risks.
"But it is challenging and it can be resource intensive for us. We have a responsibility for everyone's care, safety and well-being."
Next year, a new £55m state-of-the-art cell block is to open at Maghaberry.
Davis House, named after Maghaberry governor Stephen Davis, who died last year, will have 372 cells. Mr Armour said: "It will be a new beginning for Maghaberry, We will close the old square houses that we use in Maghaberry.
"It will be much better for prisoners and for staff, because there will be an improved line of sight for them to see what is happening."
Proposals are also in the pipeline for major improvements to facilities at Magilligan and Hydebank where women prisoners and young offenders are held, but the business plans will require the approval of a Justice Minister if and when an Executive returns.
The draft programme for government drawn up by the Assembly before it collapsed addressed many of the issues facing prisons here.
Mr Armour said that central to the way forward for jails were the proposals in the Prisons 2020 strategy to build a safer community here, one part of which was reducing the level of re-offending.
He added: "We as an organisation are about holding people safely and securely, but we are also about rehabilitation and putting people back into the community better than they were when they came into us."
In recent weeks there has been controversy over the release of five convicted murderers for a day trip to the Mournes. Mr Armour said he recognised the hurt it caused to victims' families. "That was never the intention. But it is important that we test people in the community and it is important that we work with people in the community," he added.
"Life sentences in Northern Ireland do not mean life. And these individuals will go back into society again.
"There's an onus and responsibility on us to try to ensure that when that day comes, they go out as safer individuals."
Mr Armour said that he and his officials would look at the programme and learn from it.
He added: "I'm not saying today that we wouldn't take prisoners out on a similar exercise in the future, if we felt that was the appropriate thing to do.
"These decisions aren't taken lightly. There's a very detailed risk assessment process that is undertaken and staff will look at the individual very carefully before the decision is taken."
Mr Armour said the Prison Service was alert to the sensitivities surrounding its work.
He added: "I have spent a lot of time in this job talking to victims' support organisations.
"One of the messages that comes across to me is that they don't want other people to suffer what they have suffered.
"I know it can be very difficult for victims to watch what the prison service are doing, but our end goal is to ensure that we reduce the likelihood of people who are in custody re-offending and creating more victims.
"We want to be respectful to the victims and ensure that others don't have to walk in the shoes that they have walked in."