NI Affairs Committee-The separation of paramilitary prisoners at HMP Maghaberry

03 February 2004

Her Majesty’s Prison (HMP) Maghaberry is situated near Lisburn in County Antrim. It opened in 1986. Following the closure of HMP Belfast in 1996 and HMP Maze in 2000, Maghaberry was required to absorb and accommodate a number of different prisoner groups including remand prisoners and those paramilitaries who were not released from prison early under the Belfast Agreement.

HMP Maghaberry has historically functioned as an integrated establishment, in which prisoners of all persuasions and backgrounds are required to live and work together.

The management of an institution dealing with such varied groups is a considerable operational challenge. In the summer of 2003 a number of protests were mounted by prisoners claiming that the integrationist policy was putting individuals’ safety at risk. A series of events within and outside the prison, in which individuals from both sides of the community divide participated, culminated in a dirty protest conducted specifically by prisoners affiliated to dissident republican organisations. The publicity generated by these incidents prompted community leaders and organisations to place considerable pressure on the Government to address the safety concerns raised.

In response the Government commissioned a short review of conditions in the prison which was led by John Steele, a former head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service. The Steele Review concluded that a degree of separation was required within HMP Maghaberry, to protect paramilitaries of opposing factions from each other, and to protect the ‘ordinary’ prisoners from the paramilitaries as a group. This recommendation was accepted by the Secretary of State in September 2003. Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries were swiftly transferred into a temporary special regime while two of the six prison wings, Bush House and Roe House, were physically adapted for use as a separate, highly-controlled, prison within the prison.

The Government’s decision to implement separation, which we believe to have been taken for political reasons, was largely unwelcome to staff within the Prison Service. It was not believed that separation would result in greater safety either for prisoners or staff. It was feared that the paramilitaries would seek to take control of the separated areas as they had previously done at HMP Maze. Within the temporary arrangements which have preceded establishment of the permanent regime, there has been significant evidence of prisoners continuing to resist and challenge the management of their wings. Outside the prison, attacks on the homes of prison officers—primarily by Loyalist organisations—have continued at a high level.

The report recognises that, having made the decision to implement separation, the Government cannot now turn back from it. But it asserts that the Government must pay the full cost which arises from the decision in terms of support for the prison and for its staff. The Government must ‘hold the line’ within the prison and ensure that no concessions are ever made to the separated prisoners which might undermine or diminish the control exercised by prison officers. Recommendations are made on a number of subjects, such as the procedure for identifying prisoners eligible for separation, and the exercise of sanctions, where questions about the operation of the proposed new regime remain.

A number of related concerns were raised by the Steele Review and by witnesses to the Committee’s inquiry. These included the fragile nature of the relationship between frontline staff and Prison Service Headquarters, and the importance of maintaining a full regime—including access to education and resettlement services—for the ordinary prisoner. The report addresses officers’ concerns about the actions of Prison Service management and supports the Steele Review in its advocacy of the needs of nonparamilitary prisoners. A further review of the Northern Ireland prison estate is recommended in view of the change to separation, and the impact this will have upon the already complex management problems at HMP Maghaberry.


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