Policing and justice report

Prisons: ‘Significant operational progress’

In November 2019, a Joint Inspection by Criminal Justice Inspection and the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority vented frustration at a lack of progress in key areas including drugs availability, bullying and prisoner safety in Northern Ireland’s prisons. However, the report also noted significant progress in recent years. agendaNi speaks to Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service Ronnie Armour about the service being delivered.

Are you pleased with the delivery and achievements of Prisons 2020 to date?

Prisons 2020 has been central to the achievements of the Prison Service over the past two years. The programme has helped us equip our people for the challenges they face; ensured the services we provide are appropriate and effective; helped us design an estates strategy that is focused on a more therapeutic environment that encourages greater independence; and enabled us to build strong partnerships with over 40 organisation working in our prisons.  

What significant progress has been made since the launch of the programme?

The most significant area is the cultural change the programme has delivered. By that I mean, we now look at and think about prisoners differently. Prisons 2020 has delivered a person-centred approach which recognises that those sent to prison are people placed in our care for whom we have responsibility. Prisons are not simply there to ‘lock bad guys up’, our staff very much see their role as challenging and supporting those in our care to change. Success can be measured by the fact that inspectors have given each of our three prisons maximum marks in the area of resettlement and release planning.

Included in Prisons 2020 was Estates 2020. Davis House has recently opened, what benefits do you think this is bringing to prisoners and the NIPS?

Davis House is a £54 million investment in the Northern Ireland Prison Service that we delivered on budget and on time. It has been designed to deliver rehabilitation through, for example, a dedicated learning and skills landing that will allow our partners in Belfast Metropolitan College to deliver specific skills based focused on future employability. Through the innovative use of digital technology in Davis House, we have removed mundane tasks from prison staff and enabled them to focus on rehabilitative work while at the same time encouraging those in our care to take greater responsibility for their own independence, again preparing them for release.

The recent Joint Inspection by Criminal Justice Inspection & Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority was critical and found “limited progress” on recommendations made to improve prison safety five years ago. Why, in your opinion, has adequate progress not been made?

I believe and the report recognises that significant operational progress has been made. The Inspector said that while more needs to be done at a strategic level, “the NI Prison Service and the South Eastern Trust have improved the operational delivery of prison healthcare”.  Keeping vulnerable people safe is the most challenging area of our work. Around 30 per cent, that is over 500 people in our care, have mental health issues and approximately 55 per cent have a history of self-harm. I want to pay tribute to our staff, who along with the Trust, are keeping people safe and supporting them through their challenges.

This work was commented on by the Chief Inspector in the Report which said: “I am encouraged by the new approach to managing prisoners at risk, the efforts to extend the reach of the prisoner safety and support teams, the identification of vulnerability by prison and healthcare staff has improved and critical interventions have undoubtedly saved lives.”

Ronnie Armour, Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

Keeping vulnerable people safe is the most challenging area of our work.

Bullying and drug prevalence were singled out in particular as issues within the report, is this a signal that the current strategies in place in this regard are not working? How do NIPS plan on addressing these?

Far from it, Prison Inspectors have recognised the success of the strategies we have in place which are focused on preventing drugs entering our prisons; detecting them when they do; and treating those with addictions. In the 2018 Maghaberry inspection Report Inspectors said our approaches “…to the supply and use of illegal drugs was bearing fruit, and evidence pointed to much reduced availability.”  

We all know drug misuse is a serious issue in the community, and that is concentrated in a prison. So, we are not complacent, it is a constant battle to stop drugs entering our prisons, but the determination of those seeking to do so is matched by our determination to stop them.  

The NIPS’ enhanced partnership with the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust has brought about a number of significant improvements. However, recommendations have been made for improvement at operational level of the partnership. What are the challenges in delivering on this aspect?

Two significant NIPS/SET operational improvements are worthy of note. Our new supporting people at risk (SPAR) approach has allowed us to focus limited resources on those at greatest risk. This has resulted in a 56 per cent reduction in incidents of self-harm among the young men at Hydebank Wood, an 18 per cent reduction among the women, an 18 per cent reduction at Magilligan and an 8 per cent reduction at Maghaberry.

Secondly, we continue to work closely together on initiatives such as the joint development of the Towards Zero Suicide approach within prisons. Mental health is a priority for the Justice Minister and therefore, before making a final decision, I want to consider how best the Prison Service can deliver better justice and health outcomes in the context of the structures and resources we need.

Can you outline some of the benefits being provided by other partnerships the NIPS have formed?

Building strong partnerships is central to the delivery of Prisons 2020. For example, in 2018/19 Belfast Metropolitan College and the Northwest Regional College recorded 3,500 student registrations resulting in 2,300 accreditations being awarded. These figures are particularly impressive when you note that remand prisoners participate in learning and skills to a much lesser extent. In addition, we also have 34 students studying with the Open University. Each student is focused on gaining skills that will help them find employment on release.

Northern Ireland Prison Service Director General Ronnie Armour with Maghaberry Prison Governor David Kennedy.

It is particularly concerning that our female population is sitting at 84, which is an increase of 16 on the same date last year. Almost half (49 per cent) of the women in our care are on remand.

For a very small number of people with specific and complex needs, prison is not the most suitable environment. It is right that such individuals receive the appropriate treatment in a more conducive environment and we work with our SET partners to ensure such individuals are transferred and treated according to their need. From a prison’s perspective, we are working to create a more therapeutic environment and to become a trauma informed organisation.

Identify key opportunities and challenges for the NIPS in the year 2020?

A key challenge is our increasing population, today (29 January 2020) we have 1,573 men and women in our care, of whom 539 are on remand. Our overall population has increased by 94 compared with the same day last year.

It is particularly concerning that our female population is sitting at 84, which is an increase of 16 on the same date last year. Almost half (49 per cent) of the women in our care are on remand.

In terms of opportunities, every day prison staff, working with our partners, in very complex and challenging environments, are making a difference in the lives of those in our care. Taking every opportunity we will work to make our community safer by supporting their rehabilitation, resettlement and ultimately reintegration back into our community.

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