Belfast Telegraph

Jail officers' actions simply beyond belief

Editor's Viewpoint

The language used by the Prisoner Ombudsman to describe the conduct of prison officers who stood by while a prisoner gouged out his own eyes and mutilated his groin is remarkably restrained. He described the failure of officers to intervene as remarkable. Most people would describe it as incredible and unbelievable.

The officers concerned watched the prisoner self-harm in Maghaberry Prison in an episode that lasted 67 minutes. Their explanation - or excuse - is that they were worried about security and feared that four officers would not be sufficient to subdue the prisoner.

Quite rightly, the Prisoner Ombudsman rejected those explanations. Even if they were worried about security, they had more than one hour to summon additional help.

The prisoner concerned was known to have mental health problems and had self-harmed twice in the previous two days. He could not have indicated his intention to cause himself injury more clearly.

And that raises the question of why the prison failed to provide a duty of care to a vulnerable inmate. He was clearly a danger to himself and should have been under frequent, if not constant supervision. Yet when he was observed doing such grievous harm to himself, no-one intervened.

Quite literally, any caring person would not treat a dumb animal, never mind a human being, in such a manner.

But then we know that Maghaberry is a prison in crisis. That was the description given of the jail in November last year, well over a year after this prisoner self-harmed.

It was said to be the most dangerous prison ever scrutinised by the HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales and was unsafe and unstable for both prisoners and staff. Incredibly, given what happened to this prisoner, aspects of health care last November were said to have deteriorated.

It is clear that Maghaberry has a prison culture rooted in the past, when the vast majority of inmates were terrorists.

There are terrorists still held in the jail, but they make up a small fraction of the total prison population, yet require the most intensive resources.

The Prisoner Ombudsman reports that the Prison Service, the Justice Department and the Southern Health Trust all say lessons have been learned.

That is simply a default statement after every damning report, and one wonders if lessons will ever truly be learned.

Belfast Telegraph


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