On 23rd November 2016, a range of inspectorial bodies, including the Criminal Justice Inspectorate NI and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons in England and Wales, published their joint report on an announced 'low impact' inspection of Maghaberry Prison in September 2016. The purpose of the report was to review progress against nine recommendations made in May 2015, following an inspection which found the prison to be unsafe, unstable and in crisis. While the Inspectors found progress had been made in some areas, they remain seriously concerned with the treatment of vulnerable men within the prison, with a significant reference to extended periods of isolated detention as 'solitary confinement'.
In 2015, Maghaberry Prison was deemed to be at a crisis point, producing 'poor and extremely concerning outcomes for the prisoners held there', lacking leadership and management, and suffering from ingrained, negative cultural problems. While this latest report found that progress had been made in some areas, particularly prison management, the care of vulnerable men in Maghaberry seems to be as 'inadequate' as it was in May 2015.
In essence, the report criticised the whole approach to caring for prisoners deemed at risk of suicide or self-harm; "The way of managing men in crisis seemed to us to be designed to minimise the operational impact of keeping people safe, rather than designed to enhance care and support. It remains our view that such wide use of these approaches is unnecessary and detrimental to the well-being of what were already vulnerable men."
Acute concern was also sounded at the accommodation of men with complex needs in solitary confinement for long periods of time; "A small number of men with intractable problems were still spending very long periods in segregation with a poor regime, which risked the deterioration of both physical and mental health. This detention amounted to solitary confinement".
The use of the term 'solitary confinement', rather than proxy terms such as 'segregation' or 'on protection', is highly significant, acknowledging the lived reality of many vulnerable men in prison in Maghaberry, and the harmful damage inflicted on their mental and physical health. The difficulties faced by staff in treating and managing the health implications of solitary confinement are clearly problematic in Maghaberry, given the report's recommendation that staff working in the Care and Supervision Unit 'would benefit from sound clinical advice about the management of the men held there, in particular those spending long periods in segregated conditions'.
According to the report, access to and use of drugs by prisoners in Maghaberry remains highly problematic, as do long delays in accessing drug treatment programmes.
In his forward to the report, Chief Inspector Brendan McGuigan urged management and staff to act urgently to address the issues outlined, as untreated they "have the potential to drag the prison back to where it was in 2015".