The Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford MLA, has assured the Celtic League that he is “serious…about protecting the rights and needs of all prisoners within the Northern Ireland prison estate”.
He has also stressed that robust oversight arrangements are in place to deal with any alleged abuse of prisoners human rights.
The Minister was responding to concerns expressed by the Celtic League about conditions at Maghaberry Prison and protests by prisoners held there.
Whilst the League welcomes Mr. Ford’s assurances we are disappointed that the NIPS have turned down our suggestion for an independent enquiry.
The League will continue to monitor the situation and trust that the next CPT inspection of facilities in N. Ireland will focus on Maghaberry.
The full text of the Ministers letter is set out below:
“29 October 2010
Dear Mr Moffatt
Thank you for your letter of 28 August in relation to alleged human rights abuses at Maghaberry Prison. I apologise for the delay in responding to you, which was due to an administrative error in my office.
I understand that this is an issue of considerable concern to the Celtic League and would wish to reassure you not only that all prisoners at Maghaberry Prison are treated in a manner consistent with their rights under the UN Convention on Human Rights, but also that robust arrangements are already in place for independent and transparent scrutiny of any complaints of human rights abuses.
As your letter indicates, there have been a number of important developments since you wrote to the Minister of State in April:
• The Prisoner Ombudsman took forward an investigation into a number of complaints by prisoners in Roe House at Maghaberry Prison and her report was published on 11 August. The Ombudsman’s report included 16 recommendations which the Prison Service accepted in full. I understand that significant progress has been made in taking these forward.
• I have also commissioned an independent review of the conditions of detention management and oversight in the Northern Ireland Prison Service, in line with the commitment given in the Hillsborough Castle Agreement. That review is already underway and its first phase has a particular focus on Maghaberry Prison. The Review Team are expected to make their interim report and any recommendations by the end of the year, with their final report due in spring 2011. The Northern Ireland Prison Service is fully committed to bringing forward any agreed recommendations from that report as quickly as possible.
• Perhaps most significantly, the agreement of 12 August has brought the prisoner protest in Roe House, Maghaberry, to an end. The agreement has provided for significant changes to the regime for separated prisoners at Maghaberry and for the way searching is carried out there. The agreement is predicated on a number of fundamental principles that ensure the safety of staff and prisoners throughout the establishment, preserve the security of the prison and which put human rights, equality and mutual respect at the heart of the agreement. It makes provision for independent assessors to make regular assessments of the compliance of all parties (prisoners and prison staff) with the terms of the agreement. The first of these assessments has recently taken place.
The full terms are available on the NIPS website at:
Other scrutiny arrangements are already in place in addition to these more recent developments. As you will be aware, the Northern Ireland Prison Service is subject to oversight by a wide range of independent bodies, including the Criminal Justice Inspectorate for Northern Ireland, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Independent Monitoring Board and the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
All prisoners have recourse to a confidential complaints system, and any complaints of a serious nature are dealt with at a senior level at Maghaberry. Where a prisoner is not satisfied with the responses he has received through this internal system, he may escalate his complaint to the Prisoner Ombudsman, who enjoys unfettered access to documents and CCTV footage held by NIPS, in pursuit of her investigations. Of course, all prisoners have access to legal representation through which they can challenge the actions of NIPS in the courts. In addition, all allegations of assault by prison officers are automatically referred to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for investigation.
I trust that this will provide the Celtic League with an assurance of how serious I am about protecting the rights and needs of all prisoners within the Northern Ireland prison estate.
I am confident that compliance with the agreement of 12 August can provide the basis for a lasting solution and, given the already robust oversight arrangements that the Northern Ireland Prison Service is subject to, I do not believe that there is need for a further public inquiry into Maghaberry Prison at this time.
DAVID FORD MLA
Minister of Justice”
J B Moffatt (Mr)
Director of Information