In the wake of a call by Professor Phil Scraton from Queen’s University, an expert on the prison system in Northern Ireland, for a full independent review of mental health care provision, agendaNi looks at some key prison statistics.
Phil Scraton made his remarks to the BBC in the wake of the revelations that 23-year-old Sean Lynch had endured one of Northern Ireland’s most serious incidents of self-harm while under 24-hour supervision at Maghaberry Prison.
A report by Northern Ireland’s Prisoner Ombudsman stated that Lynch inflicted “extreme and shocking” self-harm, which included blinding himself. It also concluded that prison staff had directly observed Lynch inflicting his injuries over the course of an hour and that he had been returned to prison after two previous incidents of self-harm.
Speaking before Stormont’s Justice Committee, Director General of the prison service, Sue McAllister, has since said that she was “sorry” for the injuries but the revelations have once again brought into question the provision for mental health support within Northern Ireland’s prison service.
Scraton described the case as “one of the most serious and explicit failures in the duty of care by prison management and prison guards” in his four decades of research into the treatment of vulnerable prisoners.
In 2015 the Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales, Nick Hardwick, condemned operations at Maghaberry, describing it as the “most dangerous prison” he had ever been to during his time in the role and in a “state of crisis”. A follow up report earlier this year acknowledged that steps had been taken to address concerns, but that the prison remained a “three or four” on its ratings out of 10.
“The response by the Director General to Sean Lynch and his family is an abdication of responsibility for the abject failure at all levels,” explains Scraton. “Depressingly, given the most recent highly critical report by the independent prisons inspectorate on the abject conditions at Maghaberry, severe self-harm and suicide are to be expected. The time has now come for a full, independent review of mental health care in the four prisons.”
The report by the Prisoner’s Ombudsman followed his call for a potential review of how mentally disordered offenders are being dealt with. Tom McGonigle was responding to a report compiled by The Detail, which shows that prisoners in Maghaberry were being held in solitary confinement for “months and even years”.
Five years ago the United Nations has called for a worldwide ban on solitary confinement (physical isolation for more than 22 hours a day) on durations more than 15 days, but statistics gathered by The Detail revealed that at least 10 prisoners at Maghaberry were held for more than 100 days each, with four inmates held for more than a year. In one instance a prisoner was held for five years.
Each of Northern Ireland’s three prison sites showed use of long-term solitary confinement in their Care and Supervision Units (CSU). Rules state that a prisoner’s continued stay in the CSU must be reviewed at least every 28 days, but there is no restriction on the maximum length of time an inmate can be held there.
Commenting on the report, the Ombudsman raised concerns that inmates with complex mental health needs are among those being held long-term in solitary confinement, he says: “Unfortunately the CSU is really the last resort for those people and I do of course have concerns about prisoners’ mental health if they are spending disproportionately long periods of time in the CSU. I believe the CSU figures highlight the wider need for co-operation between the Minister of Health and Minister of Justice to look at how mentally disordered offenders are dealt with.
“It really is a societal issue whereby we need to decide how we treat those very damaged people who commit offences. For example many of those prisoners who end up in the CSU can have personality disorders, but in Northern Ireland a personality disorder is not defined as a treatable condition.
“That causes serious difficulties because a lot of people who might previously have ended up in psychiatric institutions are now ending up in CSU in a prison. Yes they are a small part of the prison population, but they generate a disproportionate amount of concerns.”
The latest annual prison population released by the Department of Justice show that the total prison population in Northern Ireland during 2015 was 1,661. The figure represents a decrease of 9.2 percent on the previous year but is the first recorded decrease since 2010 and has largely been attributed to a backlog within the Crown Court process caused by the legal aid dispute.
The largest proportion of the prison population remain in the age group of 21 to 29-years-old. Despite numbers of those committing specific offences largely decreasing across the categories, drug offences increased by 18.4 per cent from 2014 to 2015.
In the same time frame, the criminal justice system recorded 9,601 new offenders in 2014/15, 63 per cent of which were dealt with by conviction. Of the 9,601 first time entrants to the criminal justice, just under 10 per cent were aged between 10 to 17-years-old.