THE new director of the prison service insists that the dramatic rise in the use of solitary confinement at Hydebank may not provide a proper picture of the punishment regime inside the south Belfast prison.
Sue McAllister took over as director of the Northern Ireland Prison Service in May.
In the 12 months before her appointment two inmates at Hydebank died by suicide while the prison’s governor, Gary Alcock, was suspended from duty as part of an investigation by Prisoner Ombudsman Pauline McCabe.
Prison service figures reveal that the use of solitary confinement has been reduced by 57% at Maghaberry since 2008 but during the same four year period the use of solitary confinement within Hydebank has risen by 130%.
However Ms McAllister claimed it was unfair to compare figures for the two prisons.
“We have three very different prison establishments so it’s sometimes not very helpful to compare Maghaberry to Hydebank Wood,” she said.
“The challenges of the population are very different; the responses to difficulties in those establishments have to be different.”
The new director claimed the figures were not truly reflective of the respective prison regimes and that a difference in behaviour between teenage and adult prisoners could be responsible for the major contradiction in solitary confinement figures.
However Ms McAllister also said that an “open” regime being operated at Hydebank and limited space within the prison may also be responsible for the stark rise in young inmates being punished with solitary confinement.
“In Hydebank Wood with the young people we operate a fairly open regime on the whole on the main wings, so there is limited capacity to remove prisoners from mainstream activities other than removing them to the care and separation unit.
“Whereas within Maghaberry we can move people between wings, we can keep them separate in other ways.”
While she accepted that the figures at Hydebank were a matter for concern, she refused to accept that they appeared to indicate a two-tier system operating within the Northern Ireland prison system.
“I think the figures are of enough concern that we need to take a close look and see what they’re telling us and I would want to do that with my governor colleagues and colleagues in headquarters.
“But what I wouldn’t wish to do is to jump to conclusions that it means things are getting better in Maghaberry and worse in Hydebank Wood because I don’t think that’s the case.”
Ms McAllister insisted that prison governors at Hydebank had a duty to ensure that unacceptable behaviour among inmates did not go “unchecked or unpunished” but accepted that the use of solitary confinement did little to assist in the rehabilitation of prisoners.
“I wouldn’t try to convince you that a period in the separation unit, being removed from the mainstream population, will necessarily contribute to that prisoner’s criminogenic needs or to reducing reoffending.
“That’s the sort of holistic approach we have to take when managing the whole sentence.
“This is just about managing acute needs, short bursts of bad behaviour, which in the main for most prisoners are short lived and set within a context of more acceptable behaviour in the wider term.”
Acknowledging that the public may have concerns over the alarming rise in young prisoners being punished with solitary confinement, she said:
“I can understand why you would be concerned by those figures, absolutely, and I need to satisfy myself and discuss with colleagues to be clear that everybody understands what the alternatives are but accepting that there will always be cases when removal from the general population is necessary and essential.”
But would the dramatic rise in the use of solitary confinement at Hydebank have come to light if the figures had not been uncovered by the Detail?
And why does the prison service not appear to have taken any steps to address the issue?
“I think you make a fair point that this is precisely the sort of information that we should know and we should have a handle on,” she said.
“I think we do.
“I did not get a sense when I walked around Hydebank Wood that anybody was cavalier about the use of confinement to room but I will certainly see it as a continuing priority in measuring the temperature of the establishment.”
Ms McAllister takes over the prison service at a time of increasing public scrutiny of the welfare of Northern Ireland’s prison population.
Mother of two Frances McKeown and 19-year-old Samuel Carson died within hours of each other on May 4, 2011 in separate wings of the south Belfast prison.
The families of both prisoners were highly critical of the treatment of their loved-ones while they were being held in Hydebank.
The Prisoner Ombudsman reports into the two deaths, which are due to be published in September, are expected to raise major concerns over the Hydebank regime.