The Prison Service have released the Outline Estates Strategy for the period 2012-2022 and it makes for rather interesting reading, to say the least. In this entry I want to outline the main provisions, in my opinion, within the document, with a concentration on Maghaberry Prison.
I want to ensure I get the information across, reading a 100+ page document is not something most people want to do or have the time to do, but I think it is a crucial issue that we should all be educated on, so I hope to give a brief - very brief background, then outline the short and medium term plans outlined in the Strategy with commentary. Some of the issues raised will be of some concern, which is why I have waited to write this entry after Pat Ramsey MLA had asked some important questions in relation to separated prisoners and physical facilities outlined in the Strategy.
Our three prisons, Magilligan, Hydebank Wood and Maghaberry have a combined CNA (Certified Normal Accommodation) - i.e. the optimal prison population, of 1765 places as of February 2012.
Magilligan is a medium security prison, which NI Prison Service intends to decommission in 2018, pending approval.
Hydebank Wood currently holds female prisoners as well as the Youth Justice Centre for juvenile prisoners.
Maghaberry is the largest of the prisons, holding remand, life sentenced, short sentenced, Category A and separated prisoners - all male.
One-third of our total prison population is currently doubled-up (525) – the vast majority of which are held at Maghaberry.
There has been a massive 84% increase in our prison population over ten years 2001-2011, and the Prison Service project a further 32.3% increase by May 2021. By any standards, a re-think of accommodation and facilities is required.
In the immediate short term, a new 120 cell accommodation block is currently under construction in Maghaberry which will help to alleviate accommodation pressure as outlined by the overcrowding in the facility as a whole. The block with be called 'Quoile House' and will be built alongside a new Special Protection Unit (SPU) with 20 cells called 'Shimna House' at a combined cost of £15.2 million. Both are expected to open mid 2012 and will bring Maghaberry's population capability to 1,012 - it currently sits at 1,004, which leaves it overcrowded by 132 prisoners.
I cannot stress enough - that neither Quoile or Shimna Houses will be used as an extension to Roe or Bush Houses - i.e. the separated units. This is not within the plans outlined and the Minister confirms this is the case. I would point out that I screwed my face up at the documents definition of separated prisoners; "members or supporters of proscribed organisations" - what about Gerry McGeough amongst others?
I had noticed that jaws were a-flapping on social media sites about an extension to Roe House in particular as population pressures come to the fore there, but I can assure you that there is no extension being built to that House, nor will the new facilities be used to hold separated prisoners, that has been confirmed in writing to Foyle SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey who has been heavily involved in prisoners issues over the last period. (Cheque in post, please!)
Another 240 cell accommodation block will be created within Maghaberry by 2015/16 to again address the population stress within the prison.
Erne, Lagan and Foyle 'Square Houses' will be refurbished going forward, but in the long term, will be demolished to cater for the reconfiguration of the facility. Maghaberry has six 'Houses' - Bush, Roe, Bann, Foyle, Lagan and Erne. All new committals, those awaiting transfer to Magilligan, fine defaulters and vulnerable prisoners are held in Lagan House.
Erne House accommodates the majority of the life sentence prisoners in Maghaberry with Bann housing all other sentenced inmates. Foyle House accommodates up to 108 remand prisoners.
Medium-long term plans
The Prison Review Team had outlined a range of recommendations in its recent report, and some of these are acted upon in this Strategy.
Key to these, is the 'reconfiguration' of Maghaberry into three 'mini-prisons'. One each for remand/short sentenced/new committal prisoners, long sentenced/life prisoners and the final one for Category A and separated prisoners currently held within Roe and Bush Houses, respectively. All Category A prisoners will remain in Maghaberry. The idea here is to isolate the needs of each group so that appropriate security and accessibility requirements can be put in place, which is obviously different depending on their status, while at present, the regime as pointed out by the Review Team, is 'rigid'.
Mourne House has a capacity of 182 and currently houses life sentence prisoners who would move to the main prison. This is to be the 'mini-prison' for Category A and separated prisoners. Reconfiguration of Mourne would require significant security upgrades at considerable cost - up to £14.5 million. Martin and Wilson Houses within Mourne will be decommissioned as part of this process. Martin House comprises inmates with less than three years to serve until release.
Significantly, a new prison is planned to house Category B prisoners in a medium security facility. Subject to necessary consultation, approvals and business case process, such a facility could be operational by 2018/19 and will cost up to £140 million. The document outlines the house that the site adjacent to Maghaberry would be suitable.
In positive news, a new visiting facility will be built in Maghaberry in the next 4-6 years as part of a £33.75m investment which includes the new 240 accommodation block.
I also wanted to single out what I felt was an important paragraph within the document, namely;
2.3 says ‘At present the prison estate does not have a dedicated facility for Cat A women prisoners, although provision has been made for the accommodation of a small number of high security women prisoners at Hydebank Wood'
A makeshift provision for Marian Price at Hydebank is unacceptable, a 58-year old woman being held in a Category A setting is vile - notwithstanding the point that she should not be in prison in the first place, but I thought it relevant to point that out.
In conclusion, there is some misinformation out there as to construction projects within the Maghaberry site, which I understand has caused some consternation in certain sections, I hope I have debunked those and given some idea as to the overall plans for the future of the Prisons Estate.
I would urge anyone with an interest who wishes to comment on the consultation which is open until the end of September to do so, I include the link below.
And of course, I welcome any questions or comments about what is becoming an increasingly important issue not just in political circles - Republican in particular, but also a massive public finance priority that we as citizens should take an interest in. Now I'm off for dinner, came straight home and comprised this!