• May 25, 2010

The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) has responded in some considerable detail to concerns articulated by the Celtic League about the situation surrounding the treatment of inmates at Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland.

The Celtic League wrote to the former Northern Ireland Prisons Minister in April (see link below):


The Prison, which in addition to housing general prisoners is also used to house republican and loyalist prisoners, has been the centre of controversy on many occasions in recent years.

The Celtic League will be giving careful consideration to the NIPS response and the issue is likely to be discussed at the Annual General Meeting of the Celtic League later this year.

The Celtic League will also consider a formal submission to the recently announced review of Northern Ireland Prisons once the terms of reference and credibility of the review has been assessed.


14 May 2010

Thank you for your letter of 06 April 2010 which raises a number of issues in relation to some reports of abuse and neglect at Maghaberry Prison. We trust that by responding directly to each allegation we can offer assurance and alleviate your concerns.


Compact for separated prisoners

It may be helpful to outline some of the background to the separated regime provided at Maghaberry.

Normally prisoners in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, are expected to live in integrated conditions. This means that the accommodation in which they live and the locations for activities such as work or education are shared with others from all parts of the community. The Prison Service believes this is the best way to run a prison as it normally provides the greatest safety.

However some prisoners, with paramilitary connections, assert that they would be safer in separated conditions. This means living with others from similar community and cultural backgrounds, separate from the rest of the general prison population.

Following a period of attacks on staff and violent actions against their families by loyalist and republican paramilitaries, the Steele Review, published in September 2003, recommended that republican and loyalist prisoners with paramilitary affiliations should be accommodated separately from each other, and from the rest of the prison population, on a voluntary basis. The UK Government accepted this recommendation and prisoners are now able to apply to enter separated conditions.

Republican prisoners are housed in two landings in Roe House. The `Compact for Separated Prisoners’, developed by Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), published since 2006 on its website (www.niprisonservice.qov.uk) sets out the regime to be delivered, although, activities have mostly to be limited to what can be provided in the House where they are held. This is explained to applicants before they move to separated accommodation. There are seven criteria
that must be met including that an applicant is judged by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to be a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation.

The process enables any prisoner granted separated status to move back to integrated conditions at any time.

Delivery of regime

NIPS endeavours to ensure that, so far as possible, a full regime is delivered to prisoners. However, NIPS also has a duty of care to protect all prisoners and staff. As such, at times it is necessary to provide an effective response, where
there is reason to suspect a risk to the security and safety of the prisoners and staff. Last November NIPS undertook a full search of Maghaberry Prison in response to a perceived security threat, which resulted in Rule 7 of the Prison
and Young mOffenders Centres Rules (Northern Ireland) 1995 (emergency situation) being invoked for the duration of the search. Unfortunately, where such serious incidents arise, it is inevitable that they will impact directly on the regime provided to prisoners. On this occasion the entire prison – not just the prisoners held in Roe House – was affected and regrettably some visits had to be suspended for the three day period of the search. However, securing the safety of prisoners, staff and visitors must remain our paramount concern.

NIPS accepts that staff pressures such as shortages, sickness levels and on rare occasions industrial action by the POA, have at times also caused disruption to the prison regime and impacted upon prisoners and their families. NIPS continues to make every effort to improve industrial relations and ensure that disputes are resolved swiftly, with minimal disruption to prisoners and their families. Regrettably the period of “withdrawal of good will” by the POA from mid March to early April this year did result in unavoidable restrictions to the regime being
applied across all three Northern Ireland prison establishments. This did at times involve difficulties with the system for processing mail, which has caused delays in prisoners and others receiving mail. However a review of the system has been completed and a number of recommendations are currently being implemented to improve the system.

The collective prisoner disturbances at Roe House on Easter Sunday in April this year also directly disrupted the delivery of the regime to prisoners throughout Maghaberry, as staff were moved from other duties in order to respond to the situation and restore good order and security.

Concerns Raised

In your letter you raise a number of concerns about the treatment of republican prisoners being held at Maghaberry prison.

23-hour lock down and cellular confinement

You cite reports that prisoners are subject to extended lock-down periods of up to 23 hours, where they are denied food and fresh water. This is not the case.

On Easter Sunday, before the Mass had ended, 18 republican prisoners ejected the priest and barricaded themselves in the House dining-room. As a direct consequence, a number of prisoners have been subject to adjudications in line
with the Prison Rules (also available on the NIPS website) following the collective breach of discipline and subsequent acts of non-compliance. In a number of cases, the sanction awarded following adjudication has been cellular confinement which, by definition, has impacted on time out of cell and on access to the normal regime. A prisoner may also be awarded loss of certain privileges which may impact on visits. Though of course, where a prisoner is subject to cellular confinement, they are still provided with prison meals and fresh water, just the same as any other prisoner.

The NIPS adjudication manual, a copy of which is on the NIPS website (and available to all prisoners), sets out guidance on an appropriate range of awards which may be given where prisoners breach discipline. The maximum amount of cellular confinement which can be given is 14 days and would only be awarded for serious breaches. Where subsequent awards of cellular confinement are given, NIPS ensures that there is always a break between these periods being served.

The adjudication system is subject to due process and quality assured by the Governor; and of course, prisoners may access legal consultations — in fact, some adjudications arising from the disturbances on Easter Sunday have been
adjourned in order to allow the prisoners to have recourse to legal consultation in the adjudication hearing or the handling of their case.

Access to education, healthcare etc.

Your letter also refers to reports that prisoners are being denied access to a range of services and activities, such as showers, education, exercise etc. We can assure you that this also is untrue. Where prisoners have not been subject
to an award of cellular confinement they continue to be offered the normal regime on a daily basis. This includes access to showers, telephone, visits, daily exercise, gymnasium and astro-turf football sessions, education and, where
necessary, healthcare. A wide range of educational classes are available on the separated landings, including Maths, English, History, Irish, Computers and Arts. There are also a range of other available courses such as guitar lessons,
yoga, hairdressing, fly-tying and leather-craft.

Throughout Maghaberry, including the separated houses, prisoners have access to Healthcare. Healthcare staff formally visit landings daily, and at any time a prisoner can request to see a healthcare member of staff and this will be
facilitated. The healthcare service is now provided by the South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust.

Where prisoners are not accessing these services this is as a result of personal choice and not because the service has not been made available.

Provision of food

Reports that prisoners are being denied food are also unfounded. All prisoners are offered three full meals and a light supper everyday. Separated prisoner meals are generally taken in cell, in the kitchen or in the recreation room. In the rest of Maghaberry prison and indeed in most prisons in these islands, meals are eaten in cell.

Due to the disturbances on Easter Sunday, when republican prisoners caused damage to the dining room, all meals currently have to be eaten within the cell or kitchen. Arrangements are in place to refurbish the dining room, but until
then there is no practicable alternative.

Conditions in cells

You have expressed concern that prisoners are being forced to eat their meals within inches of open toilets. Again, this is not the case. Eating meals in- cell is widespread in neighbouring prison services as well as in NIPS. Sample
cell checks have been carried out in each Northern Ireland prison (this included bacteria swab checks on wall surfaces and air sampling) with the results showing that all the cell environments checked conformed to acceptable hygiene standards. In addition, toilet partitions have been installed in the cells in Roe House to provide a screen around the toilet.

Under the regime at Maghaberry Prison prisoners are required to clean their cells and separated prisoners are currently conforming with this requirement. Should a refusal to clean cells arise, arrangements will be made to ensure that acceptable hygiene levels are maintained.

You also raised concerns that prisoners have refused to shave or cut hair because they are required to use their kitchen sink for this. Again, this is not true. In fact the position is that an unoccupied cell has been allocated
specifically to enable prisoners to shave and cut their hair; this has always been the case. Where prisoners are refusing to access this facility it is through their personal choice and not because it has not been made available.

You claim too that republican prisoners are subject to severe overcrowding. This is not true. The cells of republican separated prisoners in Roe House are some of the most spacious and modern in the NIPS prison estate and that all cells in the republican separated landings are single occupancy. This contrasts with the conditions for the majority of prisoners at Maghaberry, some 300 of whom are required to share their cell with another inmate. NIPS has recently opened two new house blocks, one at Maghaberry and one at Magilligan, and a further 120 units are also planned for Maghaberry by 2012.

Treatment of prisoners

Your letter raises a number of concerns relating to the treatment of prisoners, including allegations of torture, assault, the indiscriminate use of solitary confinement, harassment of visitors, strip searching, body cavity searching, controlled movemement and lack of association with other prisoner. You have also referred to the 2009 European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT), which observed
that some medical findings at Maghaberry were consistent with allegations of physical ill-treatment.

You may be aware that the CPT operates a system of confidentiality in respect of allegations made by prisoners, which puts NIPS in the difficult position of being unable to follow up on specific allegations made to the Committee. However
we would stress that NIPS treats aM allegations of assault very seriously and prisoners have recourse to a wide range of bodies via which they can raise allegations of ill treatment. It is therefore extremely likely that the specific
complaints made to the CPT have also already been made either directly to prison staff or to any of the organisations listed below and will have been subject to investigation.

As well as holding an internal investigation, at Governor level, all allegations of assault are automatically referred to the Police Service of Northern Ireland for investigation. Decisions not to prosecute are solely a matter for the
police. In addition, all prisoners have access to the confidential internal complaints system, with complaint forms easily accessible to all prisoners. Complaints of a serious nature – for example complaints of assault, harassment,
bullying or racism – are always dealt with at a senior level at Maghaberry and not by landing staff.

Where a prisoner is not satisfied with the responses he has received through the internal complaints system, he may also escalate his complaint to the Prisoner Ombudsman for a further independent investigation. And of course, all prisoners have unfettered access to legal representation, through whom they can challenge in court any action of NIPS.

Any incident where force is applied to a prisoner is governed by the NIPS Use of Force policy which complies with human rights standards. Once the prisoner is under control there is de-escalation in the force applied. All prisoners who have been subject to use of force are seen immediately by Healthcare and a body-sheet is completed to record any injuries. In addition, our position is that any unexplained injuries received by a prisoner should be immediately
investigated, whether the prisoner makes a formal complaint or not. Procedures are in place to ensure that the Governor is advised immediately of any instance where a prisoner has injuries that would raise concerns.

NIPS has also noted and responded to previous criticisms of the Standby Search Team (SST) at Maghaberry and, following a review, the SST was re-profiled earlier this year into a smaller Dedicated Search Team (DST) with a focus on intelligence led searching. Unlike the SST the new search team does not provide an automatic first alarm response, but are only called in, following a dynamic risk assessment, to provide a more normalised and proportionate response to
emergency situations. Routine in-cell searches are carried out by landing staff.

It is worth adding that the CPT also recognised a number of proactive steps that NIPS has initiated to protect both staff and prisoners within the prison, including increased CCTV coverage and video recording pre-planned interventions
by the search team.

Use of solitary confinement

In your letter you raise concerns about the frequent and indiscriminate use of solitary confinement. Again NIPS contests that this is true. As described above, the adjudication system is subject to due process and quality assured by the Governor. The Governor, or his Deputy, has responsibility for discharging the awards to prisoners following adjudication and the awards given should take account of the circumstances and seriousness of the offence, in line with guidance set out in the Adjudications Manual.

Healthcare staff must certify the individual as fit for adjudication, and if cellular confinement is given as an award, healthcare staff must also further certify the individual as fit for cellular confinement. The maximum amount of
that can be awarded is 14 days. Following adjudication, awards can also result in loss of privileges including, on occasion, visits. However prisoners will always receive their statutory entitlement of one visit per month even in the
event of an award of loss of visits on adjudication.

Visits and families:

You have also referred to reports of the loss of visits and the harassment and searching of prisoner’s family and visitors.

As we have outlined, there are some circumstances, such as during the full search of Maghaberry in November 2009, or in relation to awards for breaches of discipline, where prisoner visits may have to be suspended. We would assure you however that NIPS fully recognises the importance of protecting and promoting on-going links between prisoners and their families — including the benefits in relation to resettlement and rehabilitation – and we make every effort to ensure that disruption to visits is kept to a minimum and that the experience for visitors is as positive as possible. Indeed the independent inspectorate has praised NIPS practice in relation to Family Officers and the support provided for families at Maghaberry.

However, minimising the flow of illicit drugs and other contraband within prisons remains a main priority for NIPS. NIPS has a duty of care towards all prisoners to reduce trafficking within prisons and therefore there will be a continued need to search visitors, as in any prison system.

Visitors to prisons can expect an airport-style rub-down search on arrival and we also deploy passive drug dogs. Occasionally, where it is deemed necessary, a visitor may also be asked to undergo a full body search under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Full searching of visitors is carried out jointly between of Police Service of NI and NI Prison Service Staff, and is conducted by same sex staff. Where this is refused, a closed visit is offered. It is also worth adding that any visitor may pursue a complaint about their treatment within the prison through the internal complaints system and, if they are not satisfied with the response, they may escalate their complaint to the Prisoner Ombudsman for an
independent investigation.

Searching of Prisoners

You have raised further concerns about prisoners being subjected to full searches and searches of body cavities. Again, as is the case in other jurisdictions, NIPS has a responsibility to respond to the risks posed by the supply of illicit drugs or other contraband within prisons. Searching prisoners is essential to secure the safety and welfare of the prison population and staff as a whole.

However throughout NIPS establishments, the frequency of full body searching is no greater than in comparable institutions and is used in line with established procedures throughout the UK. A prisoner in Maghaberry, whether integrated or separated, may expect to undergo a full search approximately two or three times a week. This is usually only increased if an individual is attending outside court, when they will be subject to a full body search, both leaving and returning to prison. An officer of course does retain the right to carry out a search on a prisoner at any time, provided he has justifiable grounds for doing so. There is no doubt that the full body searching of prisoners is always a potentially stressful exercise for both the staff and the prisoner. The manner in which such searches are carried out is heavily regulated, with the procedure clearly laid down in the Security Manual. The prisoner will never be completely naked at any time during the search; the top half clothing will be removed and searched and returned to the
prisoner before the bottom half clothing is removed and search. Unlike some other jurisdictions, NIPS does not permit the search of a body cavity, but a prisoner may be required to open their mouth to permit a visual inspection.

Patrol Dogs

Your letter refers to an incident where a prisoner was bitten by a patrol dog. Patrol dogs and handlers are highly trained and incidents like this are very rare within the NIPS. On this occasion despite the prisoner being advised by the dog handler not to approach the dog, the prisoner ignored the warning and the dog reacted by biting him. The prisoner was taken to his residential unit where he received treatment from medical staff for a slight puncture mark to his arm.

Further acts of indiscipline at Maghaberry

Since you wrote, a number of republican prisoners have subsequently orchestrated a further concerted act of vandalism, breaking basins and toilets in their cells in Roe House during the evening of 6 May. NIPS of course took steps the next day to ensure that each cell was made safe before returning respective prisoners to them. This is the latest in a series of actions designed to draw attention to republican separated prisoners and to give an impression of mistreatment. However there can hardly be a justifiable basis for these prisoners complaining about adverse conditions within cells which they have themselves brought about. The police are now investigating the incident and criminal charges may ensue against the prisoners involved.

Oversight mechanisms
Finally, your letter calls for appropriate oversight arrangements to be put in place and for an independent review of the situation at Maghaberry. NIPS  recognises the value of independent scrutiny, both in terms of offering a degree
of assurance and – crucially – in order to identify and put in place best practice, for the benefit of the prison population and wider public. That is why we currently welcome scrutiny from a range of independent bodies including the
Criminal Justice Inspectorate for Northern Ireland, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prison’s, the Independent Monitoring Board, and the Prisoner Ombudsman. The management of offenders within the Northern Ireland Prison Service falls under the responsibility of the Minister for Justice, David Ford, MLA and as such is also subject to cross-party scrutiny by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Justice Committee.

In April, the Minister for Justice announced a review of Northern Ireland’s prisons, in line with the commitment given in the Hillsborough Agreement. He has made clear that this will begin with a review of the regime at Maghaberry
prison. Further details will be announced shortly.

NIPS is pursuing a major change programme to adapt to a more normalised security environment, following the recent devolution of policing and justice functions, and to better serve the needs of prisoners and of the wider public. NIPS also recognises the need to address the imbalance in terms of community background in its uniformed workforce and amongst other things is taking forward a Diversity Strategy, launched in June 2008, which set targets for increased recruitment of women and Roman Catholics.

We trust that this response has helped to provide a fuller picture of the current situation and regime provided at Maghaberry and has addressed your concerns.


Northern Ireland Prison Service”




J B Moffatt (Mr)
Director of Information
Celtic League


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