Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), Ronnie Armour, talks to David Whelan about the challenges of a growing prisoner population with broader complex needs, necessitating a new ambitious continuous improvement programme for 2025.
Armour is in no doubt of the two major challenges facing the NIPS currently. The first is a rising prison population. Currently, around 1,700 people are in the care of prisons in Northern Ireland, some 200 more than prisons are funded to facilitate.
The second challenge identified by the Director General is the increasing complexity of the needs of the prison population, highlighted by recent figures which show some 34 per cent of the people currently in prison custody have been diagnosed as having a mental health issue, and more than half have a history of self-harm.
Undoubtedly, Covid-19 and its impact on the speed of the justice system has played a role in the rising prison population numbers, evidenced by the fact that over 38 per cent are on remand and without conviction.
Armour explains that it is in recognition of these challenges that the Prisons 25 by 25 continuous improvement programme has been introduced. The programme is a follow up to the NIPS’ Prisons 2020 programme, a first continuous improvement programme, under which 96 per cent of 282 commitments were achieved. The programme led to then-Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA describing the transformation of the Northern Ireland’s prisons as “remarkable”.
“The Northern Ireland Prison Service has, over the past five years, been on an exciting journey. Our objective is to ensure NIPS is and remains a modern progressive prison service that is competent, confident, and compassionate,” explains Armour.
Successive inspection reports have highlighted consistent and considerable improvement in Northern Ireland’s prisons, albeit from a low base. In 2016, for instance, a joint assessment by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) declared Maghaberry as the most dangerous in the UK.
Armour says that the success of Prisons 2020 is best evidenced through the management of the pandemic. Globally around 4,000 prisoners died of Covid-19, 200 of which were in the UK, and tens of thousands were hospitalised. The Director General expreses pride that no one in Northern Ireland’s prison population died or was hospitalised with Covid-19 during the pandemic.
“The work we did under Prisons 2020 put us in a really good place because we were able to manage Covid in a competent way and we were in a position to take confident decisions, supported by our Minister. Our early release scheme, for example, helped us manage the prison population and I think underpinning everything we did was the compassion for people in our care,” he explains.
“However, we cannot stand still as an organisation. I have been clear that recovery is and will be challenging. Prisons 25 by 25 is critical to that recovery, delivering a route map for the next three years to build recovery, improve the organisation, and ensure that we remain high performing.”
Prisons 25 by 25 is built around five key pillars, underpinned by 25 key objectives or priority areas.
Addressing talent management, Armour acknowledges that the rising prison population necessitates additional staff. Currently, NIPS is some 60 operational staff below the optimal numbers but Armour stresses that work is underway to address the shortfall through recruitment.
Quizzed on whether the role of the prison officer is an attractive one, the Director General believes that work over the past five years has helped increase awareness of the role of the prison officer, beyond the traditional view. “This role is about so much more than locking people up, it is about unlocking people’s potential. Our prison officers work with people and make a difference in their lives daily. The previous Criminal Justice Inspector highlighted the importance of relationship building between staff and those in our care, and it has been a key focus for us. We are working constantly to ensure our staff are equipped the best way possible to do that.”
Armour outlines significant plans for staff development over the coming years, building on future leadership programmes rolled out under Prisons 2020 in relation to succession planning and upgrades to the large volume of mandatory training delivered on an annual basis.
In October 2022, Armour, along with then-Justice Minister Naomi Long MLA opened a new staff wellbeing hub at Maghaberry Prison, aimed at ensuring staff “receive the wellbeing support, recognition and development opportunities deserving of the role”. Armour acknowledges the stressful environment prison officers operate in and believes that greater complexities in the prison population is making the role more challenging.
“Looking after the wellbeing of our staff must be paramount. I believe in the past we did not do enough but the purpose-built hub is evidence of our commitment. Over the course of Prisons 25 by 25, we will be providing wellbeing facilities in our other prisons.”
In 2022, Belfast Met, working with North West Regional College (NWRC), delivered almost 1,800 qualifications across a broad curriculum of essential skills from entry level one to three. The Director General highlights that the pandemic proved disruptive to education and skills delivery but believes significant progress can be made in the coming years, following the signing of a new service level agreement between NIPS and Belfast Met.
The Director General stresses the importance of education and skills delivery in the context of rehabilitating prisoners for release back into the community, with the opportunity to gain meaningful employment. It is estimated that almost three-quarters of the prison population left school between the ages of 14 to 16 and at least half have no formal qualifications. Under Prisons 25 by 25, plans are underway for NIPS to shortly pilot the launch of employment advisory boards, identifying and linking people to employment opportunities when they leave prison. Supporting the Department for Communities’ work coaches who already operate in prisons assisting individuals to find employment and supporting them post release.
However, Armour is quick to point out that challenges also exist in terms of education and skills programme delivery. Engagement is understandably difficult with those almost 40 per cent of the prison population on remand, while roughly 52 per cent of those who eventually get custodial sentences are in the care of NIPS for 12 months or less.
Beyond education, Armour believes that other services within Northern Ireland’s prisons have and will continue to improve. The recent release of an award winning short film My Name is Joseph has shone a spotlight on past failings within prisons. The film centres around the story of Joseph Rainey, a 20-year-old from west Belfast, who attempted to take his own life just hours after being received in Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre in 2013. He died in hospital 10 days later. In February 2020, a 10-day inquest into the circumstances around his death delivered findings of six institutional failures on transfer to and reception into prison; three institutional failures in the healthcare interview on his arrival; and six institutional failures in relation to a lack of care and failure to implement previous recommendations.
In addition, the findings included systemic failures in staff training, suicide awareness, essential documentation, and the observation of prisoners at risk.
Expressing his regret at what happened in 2013 and extending his sympathies to Joseph’s family, Armour stresses his belief that the Northern Ireland Prison Service of 2023 is much changed from that of 2013. Highlighting that despite a rising prison population, incidents of self-harm are down 15 per cent between 2018 and 2022, Armour believes that fundamental changes to processes, particularly the Supporting People at Risk (SPAR) programme, has been central to the collective work identify people in crisis and getting them appropriate care.
Using Hydebank Wood College and Women’s Prison as an example, he says; “We take a very person-centred approach in terms of our interactions. When people arrive, we create a prisoner needs profile to better establish an understanding of the causes of their behaviours and indeed, their offending. Additionally, we have development plans for each individual. Innovative approaches to people in crisis has seen us introduce the use of therapy dogs and the development of specific areas and landings working with people with challenging behaviours.
“The improvement work that staff have undertaken has undoubtedly contributed to safety at Hydebank, thankfully no one has lost their life there since 2013.”
In its latest inspection, a 2019 report on Hydebank saw it achieve 15 out of 16 marks, with highest possible marks in the categories of safety and respect.
Under Prisons 2020, the Northern Ireland Prison Service delivered Davis House, a modern £54 million accommodation block at Maghaberry. Additionally, as part of long term planning some redevelopment work of Magilligan Prison is underway and a new learning and skills centre was established at Hydebank, which Armour says is “on par with any further education college in the community”.
Armour describes “ambitious” plans for the prison estate in the context of a difficult investment arena. To this end, he outlines plans to underpin planned larger investment projects with a range of smaller projects aimed at continuous improvement. Examples set out by the Director General include a recently completed stores building and chapel and Magilligan, as well as a project to upgrade the power supply. A new committal unit is planned for Maghaberry.
More broadly, he describes ambitions for the rollout of biometric technology currently in use in Davis House, across the estate, the formalisation of the use of virtual visits introduced in response to Covid-19, and the introduction of a new telephony system in almost all cells.
Just as prisons undergo the same financial pressures as other public services, so to do they have an onus to help reach public service-wide targets, such as the 30 per cent reduction in net energy consumption aimed for by 2030.
“We recognise that as a large energy user, we have an important role to play in the wider move towards decarbonisation of public services. Recent successes include a 24 per cent reduction in fossil fuel use since 2017, alongside a 5 per cent reduction in electricity use, and a 10 per cent reduction in water use. Additionally, our carbon emissions are down 44 per cent, and we have seen a 16 per cent reduction in our waste to landfill.
“This is work we started under Prisons 2020 and while progress has been positive, we realise that we have more to do around our sustainability agenda.”
In early 2022, a review into the operation of care and supervision units (CSU) in the Northern Ireland Prison Service by Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland was highly critical, highlighting that some prisoners within the units experienced regimes “amounting to solitary confinement” and that their treatment did not meet the expected United Nations (UN) Standard Minimum Rules.
Armour describes the findings as “challenging”, and points to the impact of Covid-19 as a contributing factor. However, he is confident that having taken onboard the report, a return inspection in the 2023 will present a much more positive outlook.
“We made it a priority to address those recommendation. So, for example, the Chief Inspector pointed to the absence of an operational framework, which has now been put in place. In relation to recommendations around accommodation, we have opened a new CSU for women at Hydebank, outlined plans to refurbish Magilligan and set out a three-phase delivery plan to upgrade the CSU in Maghaberry.
“Additionally, we are working closely with Belfast Met to ensure that learning and skills provision is appropriate within our CSUs.
“Most excitingly though, we have put in place new governance arrangements, underpinned by technology. One of the criticisms of the Chief Inspector was our inability to evidence the work we were doing within CSU. Through technology, we are now able to record everything being done within the CSU building.
“I am pleased with the work we have done, and I believe that through the operational framework and use of technology, our CSUs will be leading the way across the UK.”
The Director General is full of praise for the over 40 voluntary and community organisations which support the work of NIPS. In recognition of the valuable role they play, under Prisons 25 by 25, Armour recently launched a new voluntary and community sector forum, bringing partners together with the Director of Rehabilitation to improve collaboration and outcomes.
Concluding, Armour points back to the progress over recent years towards the ambition of being a competent, confident, and compassionate prison service. While acknowledging that continuous improvement means that work will never be finalised, he expresses pride at the transformation that has taken place.
Underpinning progress is a recent announcement that the NIPS has been successful in securing a global justice conference of over 600 delegates for 2026. The International Prisons and Corrections Association, within which NIPS is joined by prisons in over 70 countries, has recently accepted a bid by NIPS, the smallest geographic region and prison service to have achieved this to date.
“We are delighted about this announcement, and I think the desire of people across the world to come and visit our prisons and hear about our prison service is testament to the work that has been done in recent years.”