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Prisons chief faces grilling at Stormont over 'fragile' progress at Maghaberry

By Deborah McAleese

The head of the Prison Service has been called before Stormont's Justice Committee to explain ongoing failings at the high-security Maghaberry jail.

Sue McAllister is due to give evidence in relation to the findings of a follow-up inspection at the highly criticised prison.

Inspectors who last year labelled the jail near Lisburn as the most dangerous in Europe, yesterday said that while the situation had stabilised and improved, progress was "fragile".

A report published by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) identified violence in the prison and access to illicit drugs as ongoing problems.

The report also said that mental health provisions had deteriorated as a result of staff shortages.

Inspectors added that the culture within Maghaberry needed to change "to make it fit for the 21st century".

Ms McAllister, director general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, was to be joined by Phil Wragg, the governor at Maghaberry, to answer questions from the justice committee this afternoon.

Committee chairman Alastair Ross said that while yesterday's inspection report indicated that inspectors believe Maghaberry had stabilised, "we are still a long way off where we should be in terms of having a modern and effective prison".

The DUP MLA added: "In particular, people will note that inspectors have indicated they still have concerns over the level of violence in the prison and the availability of illegal drugs.

"It is clear from this report, and indeed the recent report into the fire at Erne House, that significant work is required in order to ensure that Maghaberry is adequately staffed, and more needs to be done to build up the morale of officers and improve relationships with management."

Yesterday's CJINI report said the leadership team within the prison had been strengthened since they visited last year. The new team is "focused on stabilising" the regime, it added.

The inspectors welcomed the action taken to start addressing serious concerns raised in their previous report, but they also stressed that much more needed to be done.

"In my view, a significant amount of work remains outstanding to make Maghaberry safer for prisoners and staff and for this to reflect more positively in the outcomes of prisoners and their experience," said Brendan McGuigan, the chief inspector of CJINI.

Inspectors also warned that the culture within the prison needed to urgently change to make it fit for the modern day.

"Many staff adhered to the view that prisoners were to be feared and that they could do little to influence prisoners' custodial or future behaviour on release," the report said.

It also noted that while restrictions to the daily regime within the prison were still significant, they had reduced from previous levels.

"More prisoners were now attending activities and achievements were increasing," said Mr McGuigan.

"A new core day had been introduced which was enabling prisoners in full-time work to achieve over nine hours out of cell.

"Inspectors also noted that fewer men were locked up during the working day."

The inspectors are to return to the prison a number of times over the next 18 months to oversee the implementation of changes they have recommended.

Commenting on the latest inspection findings, Ms McAllister said she welcomed that the report "states the prison has stabilised and progress has been made across a range of areas".

"However, we agree these are early days and that progress must be built upon and continue," she added.

Justice Minister David Ford said: "I do not underestimate the challenges which remain, but I welcome this independent verification that progress has been made."

Belfast Telegraph


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