A DRUGS drought at Northern Ireland's only high-security jail has led to increased fears of violence against staff.
Maghaberry Prison banned visits to limit the spread of coronavirus, but the move has decimated the behind-bars drug trade because drugs are mainly smuggled in by visitors.
Dozens of inmates hooked on substances such as the synthetic zombie drug spice, have been unable to get their fix, leading to dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Maghaberry staff, whose numbers have been depleted by over 100 because of sickness, say some inmates are growing increasingly erratic. On Thursday it was confirmed that five prison officers here have tested positive for Covid-19. So far there have been no confirmed cases of the virus among prisoners.
Their concerns coincide with Justice Minister Naomi Long revealing that 166 prison officers had been assaulted in Northern Ireland's three prisons over the past three years - a rate of more than one attack per week. The vast majority occurred at Maghaberry, which recorded 115 such incidents.
The assaults disclosure was provided to politicians after an Assembly question by DUP MLA Paul Givan and further questions from Ulster Unionist Assemblyman Doug Beattie.
Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan (below) told Sunday Life staff must be protected.
"These are obviously very difficult times and particularly for our prison staff. They are vital frontline workers and must be protected from both physical assaults and any potential infection," he said.
"Measures have been taken, but concerns obviously still remain about potential infection of both staff and inmates. It is vital that the stocks of personal protective equipment which are available are properly distributed across our public services.
"If the cancellation of visits has cut off a supply of contraband, it again highlights the need for officers' safety to be protected. Any increased tension within a prison is worrying and must be closely monitored. However, if the supply chain for such substances has been disrupted, it does also provide an opportunity to work with prisoners who may have addiction problems and work to reduce such issues in the future."
Sources at Maghaberry told Sunday Life that the combination of dangerous prisoners suffering drug withdrawal symptoms and a visiting ban because of Covid-19 infection fears had created a "perfect storm" for violence. Online virtual visiting by relatives has now replaced visits in person.
"You could cut the tension with a knife," said one insider. "Everyone, both staff and prisoners, are paranoid about catching coronavirus. When you add this to a lot of drug addicts suffering withdrawal symptoms and being p****d off because they can't get visits, the opportunity for assaults increases.
"Then there are other prisoners who are furious that they weren't among the 200 picked for early release.."
In a bid to ease pressure on Northern Ireland's jails in the midst of the crisis, Justice Minister Naomi Long agreed to free 200 inmates early.
The criminals benefiting from the scheme only had three months of their sentences left to serve, with a ban on killers, paramilitaries and sex offenders being released.
However, tension remains high in Maghaberry, a prison which the authorities admit has a significant drug problem.
In a recent report by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI), 46% of inmates surveyed said "it was easy to get illicit drugs in the prison".
Another worrying figure is that 22% of the inmates spoken to at Maghaberry said they had only developed a drug problem after being locked up at the prison.
When the findings were published, CJI chief inspector Brendan McGuigan said he was "frustrated" more had not been done to improve prisoner safety and that their access to illegal and prescription drugs must be addressed.
There is also a direct link between drug use and assaults on staff at Maghaberry.
In 2018 inmate Thomas Mongan, a known drug user, had his jail sentence extended by 10 years after he pleaded guilty in court to slashing the throat of a female prison officer with a razor. The attack was described by Prison Service director general Ronnie Armour as "calculated and vicious".
As of April 24 there were 910 inmates at Maghaberry jail, a significant drop in prisoner numbers brought about by the Covid-19 early release scheme.
There are also 1,261 staff employed at Northern Ireland's three jails, although approximately 20% of this number are currently on sick leave.
Mr Armour has insisted his staff are doing everything possible to cope with the virus crisis and that decisions are being made to benefit both employees and inmates.