Belfast Telegraph

Viewpoint: Prison site is not open and shut case

As might have been expected, the question of where to locate a new £150m prison to replace Magilligan is far from being a foregone conclusion. The Government's decision to ask the Prison Service to produce a range of options has sparked a vibrant debate.

Everyone agrees that the prison itself is well past its sell-by date, with parts of the complex having been branded unsafe and unhygienic. But while the Government's preferred option is a facility somewhere within a 30-mile radius of Belfast, local MP Gregory Campbell is calling for the new jail to be built on the existing site.

His campaign has received a boost from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which accuses the Government of taking an "arbitrary" decision to rule out a location in Co Londonderry.

In a letter sent to Security Minister Paul Goggins, the all-party committee suggests that the most cost-effective solution would be to rebuild at Magilligan, saying that it would be possible to have a " first-class" prison there by 2010.

The committee says the best argument for a rebuild of Magilligan is that the site is owned by the Prison Service, meaning that the redevelopment could be phased over a fixed period and spreading the cost over a number of years.

From a practical point of view, there is no doubt that a Magilligan Mark II would be the simplest option. The wrangle over the Government's attempt to relocate the police training unit to Cookstown - as yet unresolved - demonstrates the difficulties of a green field site.

Securing planning consent for a new jail or for change of use for an existing government owned site could be a lengthy process. Few people would welcome a prison being built next door to them, and a judicial review could not be ruled out.

That said, heed must also be paid to the needs of prisoners' families and the well-being of inmates themselves. Magilligan is in a notoriously remote spot and visitors travelling by public transport from the east of the province face a marathon journey by train and minibus.

Prison is primarily a means of punishing offenders by depriving them of their freedom. But rehabilitation is also vital, and the easier that access is for visitors, the more likely it is that family units will remain intact and inmates will be able to resume a normal life upon release.

Given that the most densely populated part of Northern Ireland is the greater Belfast area, there is logic in locating a new prison somewhere within relatively easy reach - such as Maghaberry.

A statement from the Prison Service insists that no decision has been taken so far, but that an announcement will be made before the end of the year. As the debate intensifies, Mr Goggins must ensure that he keeps an open mind.


From Belfast Telegraph