Maghaberry is a place where every prison cliché comes to life. Set in the bleak countryside atop a former RAF airfield about twenty miles from Belfast, you can’t help but be filled with a great sense of foreboding as you approach. Walking from the visitors’ car park the full complex sweeps out in front of you and you get your first glimpse of one of the places most people are happy to know exists but want to never actually confront.
The walls are as intimidating as they are practical and the barbed wire high and impenetrable. It’s 3pm and the sun is steadily beginning its rapid descent into the Country Antrim hillside. But within the landscape that seems to act as a natural enclosure to the high-security defences it’s much darker. It feels that in Maghaberry, dubbed by the Daily Mirror ‘Britain’s most dangerous prison’, the sun never shines.
It’s hard to feel sympathy for many of the inmates. Maghaberry is Northern Ireland’s highest security prison, it’s home to a motley crew of terrorists, murderers, career criminals. Included within its wings are convicted murderers like Brendan McConville. McConville, one of the self-styled ‘Craigavon Two’ is a former Sinn Fein councillor who shot dead a Catholic police officer, Stephen Carroll, as he arrived to answer a 999 call placed by McConville in 2009. Not a person many believe should ever enjoy a moment of happiness ever again.
Last month McConville got married within the confines of the jail. Decent citizens were treated to images of a happy-looking McConville and his blushing, English, bride as they tied the knot in the prison chapel. In recent years Maghaberry has been home to a series of governance failures that would make the Romanian interior minister wince. Many people rightly asked how the prison could find the time to accommodate terrorist weddings while the prison was quite literally going up in smoke..
In July a report into Maghaberry was released following an announced inspection in January of this year. It found that since May 2015 goals set with regards to prisoner safety had been partially achieved but that outcomes were still inadequate. Crucially, levels of violence were described as “still too high” and the use of force by guards was described as “still high” with assault allegations by staff against prisoners were subject to “poor” investigations that “needed urgent management attention”. Almost fatalistically the report said the prison need a “comprehensive strategy to reduce the level of self-harm and self-inflicted death”. That such a strategy never existed in the first place says a lot.
In 2014 a remand prisoner gouged his own eyes out while on special watch. In October this year an electrical fault opened all the cell doors in one wing, leaving 100 prisoners to run riot while the three guards on duty retreated behind secure fencing.. Fires were lit before the situation was brought back under control 40 minutes later. A similar response occurred when a prisoner set fire to his mattress around the same time. In November it emerged that a female warden had been bound to chair with tape by laughing inmates as disillusioned guards responded to belief that they were being blamed for the three suicides that occurred that month. In 2013 drug finds topped out at 452 yet it’s an open secret that the vast majority of substances are still going undetected. Heroin is rife and the extensive searches and sniffer dogs you are understandably subjected to on entry are not picking it up.
On the subject of mental health the report found that the needs of some segregated prisoners had not been assessed. In context the omission is staggering. A quarter of the 900 men in the prison are said to suffer from mental health problems, with predictable results. Half of Northern Ireland’s prison population are said to self-harm. The new governor, Stephen Davies, who took over in August is on the record as saying that his staff simply cannot cope with the 200 or so prisoners who they must spend a disproportionate amount of time keeping an eye on. Staff agree.
That conditions in the prison are inadequate is beyond doubt. The report, and incidents that have occurred since testify to that. For vulnerable prisoners, many of them young and serving shorter sentences for relatively minor offences the atmosphere is terrifying. If they didn’t have mental health issues when they arrived in the most miserable corner of our small province, they soon will. Case law relating to riotous behaviour has ensured that the prison has seen a steady turnover of young men sentenced in the wake of the flag protests and subsequent riots who would never previously seen the inside of a prison. The long-term consequences of this could be severe.
A prison like Maghaberry will turn out only two types of person – hardened criminals who will go on to reoffend and people who will spend the rest of their lives utterly traumatised by the things that have happened in such close proximity to them. Neither type of ex-con is going to be any use to society.
Davies reckons the answer is a dedicated unit for prisoners with mental health issues. Just let that sink in. In Northern Ireland, in 2016, we are able to segregate prisoners according to their political affiliation but not according to their mental health. It’s hard to argue with his point. A dedicated unit would take the vulnerable prisoners to a situation where they could be adequately rehabilitated and let the prison staff who were not trained to be mental health nurses get on with the job they’re paid – maintaining a semblance of order in the prison and getting people out of the door as better people.
It would be foolish to believe that HMP Maghaberry’s problems can be solved with one simple strategic readjustment however. The road to Maghaberry is a long one and it doesn’t necessarily start at any one of the courthouses sending people there. The prison system is being used more often than not as the first intervention in the life of someone who is either a drug addict or suffers from mental health issues or both.
Northern Ireland can be a hard-minded place. Despite five or six years of negative headlines concerning conditions in the prison the devolved government is typically paralysed by the political consequences of reforming the system such is the apparent lack of public concern over what goes on there. If a murderer slices an artery during the night, who cares? But the longer we carry on like this, the longer Maghaberry’s shadow will stretch into homes and communities across Northern Ireland, creating more victims and failing more people.