NI Prisons: The case for a public inquiry

Professor Phil Scraton is Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University in Belfast

Professor Phil Scraton is Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University in Belfast

By Phil Scraton

IN her report into the death of Frances McKeown who died on 4 May 2011 in Hydebank Wood, the Prisoner Ombudsman reiterates an already established ‘need’ for the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust ‘to fundamentally review the approach to caring for vulnerable prisoners’. In so doing Pauline McCabe considers the ‘quality of the regime’ in the women’s prison and the male young offenders centre lacks ‘adequate purposeful, rehabilitative activity’.

Yet again, investigations into the circumstances of two deaths in Hydebank Wood on the same day confirm what has been established by previous reports, inspections and reviews – that in responding to the complex needs of vulnerable prisoners Northern Ireland’s prisons are seriously deficient. This was one of the key findings of the Prison Review Team, chaired by Dame Anne Owers and established by the Justice Minister, David Ford as a post-devolution priority. It flies in the face of the unequivocal recommendations from successive inspections and concerns raised by Independent Monitoring Boards.

In July 2007, with Dr Linda Moore, I co-authored a report into women’s imprisonment within the male young offenders’ centre at Hydebank Wood. Having been transferred from Mourne House, Maghaberry Prison (the focus of our initial research and report in2005) the women’s accommodation at Hydebank was – and remains – literally a prison within a prison. This denies women prisoners a gender-appropriate regime.

Our report, commissioned by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, was based on intensive research over many months in the prison. We interviewed women prisoners and observed the operation of the regime. We made 55 detailed recommendations for fundamental changes to the context and circumstances in which women are imprisoned in Northern Ireland. Nineteen recommendations focused on healthcare needs, and the lack of responsiveness to those identified needs both in sentencing and in imprisoning women.

Dr Moore and I also gave evidence at the inquests into the deaths of Annie Kelly and Roseanne Irvine who had taken their own lives in Mourne House. The inquests were held in 2004 and 2007 respectively and each narrative verdict delivered by the jury highlighted and condemned the endemic failures in the care of women prisoners.

Following Roseanne Irvine’s inquest, the Coroner wrote to the Director of the prison service and to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to echo the profound concerns of the jury. Five years on, the Prisoner Ombudsman’s latest report is an indictment of the ineffective progress to tackle institutionalized malaise.

The Detail’s disclosed Freedom of Information responses demonstrate that despite the transfer of prisoners’ care to the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, the severity of the issues raised by our work remain unaddressed. The contradiction of delivering appropriate care and treatment to prisoners with complex healthcare needs, particularly mental ill-health, in regimes that prioritize discipline and cellular confinement remains.

As our independent research concluded, a resolution can be found only through developing appropriate alternatives to prison to ensure that vulnerable prisoners are understood, protected and helped. The first principle has to be ‘first, do no harm’. Within prisons, and their operational practices, the State’s duty of care is enshrined in legislation and in international human rights standards. This duty must always take precedence over deleterious regimes typified by long periods of isolation, lack of creative programmes and inadequate healthcare.

It is incumbent on the Justice Minister and the prison service to demonstrate a clear programme to meet the State’s obligations regarding its duty of care. It is also time for the Human Rights Commission to follow through its commitment to ensuring that the rights of prisoners in Northern Ireland’s jails are safeguarded. That commitment previously included using its powers of investigation to inquire into self harm and suicide throughout the prison system.

Our 2007 Report for the Commission called for an independent, public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths in custody of Annie Kelly and Roseanne Irvine and the deterioration in the regime under which women were held. The time has come for that call to be extended to cover all self-harm, attempted suicide and custody deaths across the service.

Professor Phil Scraton is Professor of Criminology at Queen’s University in Belfast. He co-authored a report into women’s imprisonment within the male young offenders centre at Hydebank Wood in 2007. He is also the primary author of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report.