Maghaberry Prison, which was branded the most dangerous in the UK, has stabilised its regime, but still falls a long way short of required safety standards, inspectors have said.
Conditions inside HMP Maghaberry were described as “Dickensian” by experts who compiled a damning inspection report last year.
Officials from HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) carried out an unprecedented urgent follow-up visit last month, to establish if the “unsafe and unstable” environment had changed.
While their findings offer some encouragement to the prison authorities, Maghaberry has by no means been given a clean bill of health. In one area of concern flagged by inspectors – mental health provision – the situation has actually worsened.
The high-security prison near Lisburn, has now effectively been placed on probation by the inspection chiefs, who have undertaken to carry out a series of inspections over the coming 18 months to ensure progress is maintained.
It is the first time CJINI has ever triggered such a rolling monitoring exercise.
Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland Brendan McGuigan said the prison had “stabilised”.
“While some progress had been made in addressing our concerns and the nine recommendations made in the November 2015 report, this progress was fragile. 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 for prisoners and their experience.”
Inspectors who carried out last May’s unannounced visit identified a series of serious failings in the regime that had fostered a volatile atmosphere, with the prison on the verge of a riot. In three out of four measuring standards used by inspectors – safety, respect and purposeful activity – Maghaberry was given the lowest ranking possible.
They were particularly critical of the management regime within Maghaberry.
Two months after the inspection, the then governor left his post. He was replaced by former governor of HMP Belmarsh in south London, Phil Wragg.
Mr McGuigan said some improvements were visible, such as greater prisoner access to meaningful activities through the day and more supervision of inmates in recreation and exercise areas.
But he said a culture among staff that prisoners should be kept at arms’ length was still a problem.
Stormont Justice Minister David Ford welcomed the findings of the follow-up inspection. He said inspectors had recognised the “complex and challenging environment for prisoners and staff.”
“Progress has been made across a range of areas and inspectors have highlighted in particular the improvements made around safety and leadership since their last visit.”