HMP Magharberry: Violence and disorder at high security prison reduced

A prison once branded dangerous and Dickensian has made immensely encouraging progress, a report said.

Maghaberry high-security jail in Co Antrim holds life prisoners convicted of the most serious offences including murder and paramilitaries.

Many struggle with substance abuse, self-harm, lack of education and poor mental health and some are extremely vulnerable.

In April watchdogs revisited the institution three years after finding it “unsafe, unstable and disrespectful”, and said excellent leadership efforts to stabilise it had borne fruit.

The inspectors said: “We rarely see a prison make the sort of progress evident at Maghaberry and it is to the credit of all those involved that many of the outcomes for the men held at the prison are now among the best we have seen in this type of prison in recent years.”

Levels of violence and disorder had reduced significantly and the prison was much more stable and calm, while relations between staff and prisoners had been “transformed”.

Areas where inmates congregate were once no-go zones for staff but are now regularly patrolled.

Reservations remain over the handling of vulnerable prisoners, the inspectors said.

Five inmates have killed themselves since the last inspection and a “very high” 500 reports of prisoners at risk had been opened recently.

Observation cells for inmates vulnerable to self-harm had been used 200 times and strip clothing, designed to be resistant to suicide bids, in 80% of cases, which inspectors noted can add to distress.

The unannounced inspection was conducted in April this year by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority and the Education Training Inspectorate.

It said the regime inside was much better than observed previously and was being delivered reliably.

It also said learning, skills and the provision of work had improved but much more still needed to be done.

The inspectors said rehabilitation and release planning work was amongst the best they had seen.

Prisoners received good support on arrival, a special area is set aside for the first few days with arrangements for mentoring by other prisoners and enhanced contact with family and friends, and the prison seemed safer, with a relatively low level of violence but many men still said they felt unsafe, the report said.

Robust and effective action had been taken to reduce the supply of illegal drugs.

Some men spent long periods in a special care and supervision unit but more was being done to integrate them, inspectors said.

Levels of self-harm had fallen but management arrangements were too risk- averse, which can mean over-reliance on intrusive monitoring which can itself be stressful, and the underlying issues were not addressed adequately, the review found.

The response to recommendations following deaths in custody was “insufficient”, the report said.

At the time of inspection there had been five self-inflicted deaths since a previous inspection in 2016.

Living conditions were reasonable, although some “houses” offered poor cell accommodation, the inspectors said. A new block is being opened soon.

A more conducive environment for training and learning was created but inspectors said not enough activity places existed and the curriculum was too narrow.

Attendance records needed improvement. Long waiting lists were noted for more popular courses. Outcomes were not sufficiently good.

Release from prison planning and outcomes for prisoners were good.

The report made 14 recommendations surrounding the negative perceptions held by many prisoners, the need for timely responses to health complaints and poorer outcomes seen by Catholic inmates.

It said the practice of supplying medicines which had been prescribed for direct administration by prison staff should be reviewed to reduce the opportunity for bullying by other prisoners.

Prison Service director general Ronnie Armour said: “This latest report demonstrates the huge progress which has been made at Maghaberry Prison.

“From a facility which was described in 2015 as ‘unsafe, unstable and disrespectful’, criminal justice inspectors are now reporting ‘progress rarely seen’ with ‘outcomes for prisoners now among the best’.”

Maze Prison Officers Ignored Management

HMP The Maze
HMP The Maze

Out-of-control warders took over the running of the Maze Prison after the IRA escape in 1983, a secret Irish government report states.

Declassified documents show Irish officials warned the British government to take back control of the notorious jail before republican paramilitaries starting killing “easy target” prison officers.

Dublin’s then Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Barry was so worried about events inside the Maze, he despatched an underling to the British Embassy to make his concerns known.

In that meeting, the official describes the situation as “potentially explosive”.

“It is our understanding that the prison officers and their association are virtually running the prison, independent of the management of the prison which is powerless at present in enforcing its wishes,” a note of his remarks states.

“There is a danger of confrontation between the minority and the authorities reminiscent of the hunger strike as the facts begin to emerge.

“It is likely that the paramilitaries on the outside will react violently by killing prison officers and that we would strongly advise the British authorities to exercise command of the prison and ensure that all in the prison (prisoners and wardens alike) accept the norms of prison behaviour and act in accordance with prison discipline and within the prison regulations.”

Tensions were at boiling point inside the high-security facility after 38 republican prisoners escaped on September 1983, in what was the biggest mass breakout in British penal history.

In a further memo from the time, marked “Secret”, an Irish government official says he was satisfied members of the Prison Officers Association were “acting against the wishes of the prison authorities” and bore responsibility for the tensions.

It adds: “There have been inordinate beatings of prisoners, despite denials by the Northern Ireland Office.”

Two sources for the Irish government at the time were Father John Murphy, Catholic chaplain inside the Maze, and Father Denis Faul.

In one report in the Foreign Affairs files, Father Murphy told a government official that the only way inmates could have got weapons for the break out was through collusion from prison officers.

“There are suggestions among the prison officers that money may have changed hands, and one prison officer mentioned to him that certain bank accounts should be checked,” it states.

The memo details ill-treatment of inmates in the aftermath of the escape including their being stripped naked, dragged across the compound, leaving lacerations on their backs and buttocks.

Eighteen inmates were said to have suffered dog bites.

“The prison officers, who are almost without exception poorly educated Protestants, have taken complete control,” the Irish government files state.

“There is blatant sectarianism within the prison.”

In another note marked confidential, it says wardens were completely ignoring instructions from the second-in-command at the Maze, a Catholic, not to beat prisoners.

It also states prison officers demanded in vain to be issued guns by prison management.

The situation was top of the agenda during a meeting between then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Prior and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Mr Barry at Hillsborough on October 19 1983.

Briefing notes for the talks direct the minister to raise evidence showing the ill-treatment by prison officers, “who seem to have taken effective control of the prison”.


Prison officers fighting the potential closure of Magilliganprison have taken their campaign to Stormont.

Members of the Prison Officers Association (POA) handed a petition of 5,500 signatures to Justice Minister David Ford on the steps of Parliament Buildings calling for the future of the north west facility to be secured.

A proposal to close Magilligan and relocate the jail closer to Belfast made by a review team which examined the prisonservice estate in Northern Ireland is currently being considered by Mr Ford.

The minister has insisted the consultation on the issue is open and has indicated that Magilligan may be kept open, with a potential reconfiguration of the inmate population.

Magilligan houses an estimated 500 low to medium risk male prisoners, with most serving sentences of six years or lower. About 350 prison officers work there.

Finlay Spratt, chair of the POA in Northern Ireland, who led his colleagues to Parliament Buildings, said closing Magilligan would be the wrong decision.

“If you are going to make a decision to shut you have to have economic reasons for it and he (Mr Ford) hasn’t produced any economic reasons or any justification,” he said.

Mr Spratt added: “Magilligan has played a very important role in the penal system and really they need to get on and redevelop Magilligan, and I believe that is cost effective.”

Mr Ford is due to make an interim statement on the prison service review to the Assembly next week, with a final decision on Magilligan due early next year.

“This is an open consultation,” he said after receiving the petition.

“There was a recommendation from the prison review team to close Magilligan and move the site closer to central population, but we are looking at all the options, including what options there might be to maintain a presence at Magilligan.

“What it won’t be is exactly what Magilligan currently does.”