Prison staff at Maghaberry were put at “serious risk” when the cell doors of around 100 prisoners opened unexpectedly due to an electrical fault, an officer has claimed.
The Northern Ireland Prison Service has confirmed the incident took place at Quoile House, and that deliberate fires were started in other wings of the high security jail, over the weekend.
According to the concerned officer who contacted the News Letter, inmates ran riot while the small number of staff on duty in Quoile House quickly retreated behind security gates.
“I was on duty yesterday (Sunday) and the whole jail was in pandemonium. There were four fires, and six [NI Fire and Rescue] appliances were in attendance,” he said.
“I have never seen it as bad...that was the worst ever. In Quoile House, an electric circuit broke, or something to that effect, and the whole house, with only three members of staff in it, unlocked and there were over 100 prisoners that made their way out onto the landings. The prison service, for more than 40 minutes, lost control of three landings.”
The experienced officer added that staff have been left angry that the “Rule 7” total lockdown procedure was not implemented to protect staff.
A NI Prison Service spokesman said the prisoners unexpectedly freed onto the landings were returned to their cells “after about 10 minutes” – and said there were only two fires.
The officer said his colleagues ran to manually close the grills “which kept the prisoners within the parameters of the landings,” before retreating to safety.
“We are going to lose [an officer] some day. The prison officers [in Quoile House] had to stay in the circle last night out of harm’s way because they were totally outnumbered.
“Nobody wants to highlight the risk, and how vulnerable we are. The prisoners were out on three landings and there were water fights, and food fights, and they were throwing everything.
“They were trying to dismantle things, and this went on for 40 minutes until the only dog that was in the place took control of each landing section by section,” he said.
Prison authorities have also confirmed that two fires – in the Bush House and Erne House wings – were started by inmates but said both were extinguished by prison staff before the arrival of NI Fire and Rescue crews.
A prison service spokesman said: “NI Prison Service can confirm two fire incidents at Maghaberry during the weekend 1 and 2 October 2016.
“The first at Bush House was reported at 8.15pm Saturday 1 October. A prisoner had set fire to rubbish and damaged contents of his cell. The fire was quickly extinguished by NIPS staff. There were no injuries to prisoners or staff and no evacuation of any prisoners was necessary.”
The spokesman added: “At 1.30pm on October 2 a fire was reported in Erne House. Rubbish was ignited and pushed into a service duct. The fire was extinguished prior to the arrival of the NIFRS and again no evacuation of any prisoners was necessary. There were no injuries to prisoners or staff.”
The officer did not believe the incidents were coordinated, but said the risk posed to officers’ safety was increasing.
“In one of the fires, they were able to destroy their toilet, and then stuff materials into the duct in the wall. When it was set on fire, it was then causing smoke damage to the landing which was affecting the other prisoners and staff. Our lives our being put in jeopardy day and daily. This is a forgotten place.”
It also emerged yesterday that prison governors offered inmates a limited time period to hand over illegal drugs without fear of repercussion.
A prison service spokesman said the amnesty ran from September 26 until September 30, and that “quantities of cannabis, tablets and other substances were uncovered”.
He added: “Anyone who takes illicit substances puts themselves at risk of serious harm. Governors will use all tools at their disposal to keep prisoners safe.”