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By Act Or Omission

Pauline Mellon highlighting medical neglect in Maghaberry. Pauline Mellon is a social justice activist who blogs @ The Diary Of A Derry Mother.
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As a keen blogger I find it easy to write about issues that you know will spark interest yet not so easy to highlight issues that show up your own inactivity as a social justice activist.

Having caught up with my reading this morning I began to notice a pattern in the number of statements released highlighting medical neglect in a location you won't find in any tourist brochure, the north's Maghaberry prison.

In 2009 Prison inspectors Dame Anne Owers and Dr Michael McGuire said “Maghaberry Prison was one of the most “expensive prisons” to run yet one of the “worst in the UK.” As you will see this was no exaggeration on their part.

The first statement I read was in relation to a republican prisoner named Ta McWilliams who on May 31st was handcuffed and transferred by ambulance to the emergency department at the Ulster Hospital. Ta, who has a documented history of heart trouble was suffering chest pains and presenting other symptoms associated with heart failure.

Whilst undergoing a battery of tests to establish the severity of his condition Ta remained handcuffed to one of three prison staff who were present at all times, even as he used bathroom facilities. It must also be noted that Ta McWilliams was so weak he was unable to undergo one of the tests required at the hospital.

14 hours after arriving at the hospital he requested that the handcuffs be removed due to the increased discomfort. This was refused by senior prison authorities. On his return to prison several hours later in a weakened state Ta McWilliams was forcibly strip searched. This search was justified on the basis of prison policy despite him being handcuffed to a member of prison staff for the duration of his time in hospital.

In a second scenario republican Prisoner Seamus McGuigan was taken to hospital suffering from rising blood pressure. On examination it was discovered that Seamus had suffered a mini stroke. Naturally Seamus requested a phone call to his family to put their minds at ease, his request was denied leaving Seamus with no option but to discharge himself back to the care of Maghaberry. Despite being accompanied at all times and having suffered a mini-stoke Seamus just like Ta Williams was brutally and forcibly strip searched when he returned to Maghaberry.

In another article I learned of the disgraceful treatment of republican prisoner Terry McConnell who is due to be released from prison in the near future.

Terry was diagnosed with an Arteriovenous Malformation on his Brain, a condition akin to a brain aneurism. Despite this Terry has received inadequate medical attention in Maghaberry, with every improvement in the treatment he receives coming as the outcome of legal challenges. In addition to this Terry has attended medical appointments handcuffed even when being advised on how his condition had escalated to the point were there was 10% risk of him having a stroke and haemorrhaging. With Terry at immediate risk, to get information on when he was scheduled for brain surgery too required a high court challenge.

The ill treatment and neglect of prisoners health and wellbeing isn't a recent development within Maghaberry under the management of the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS). In September 2002 Annie Kelly completed suicide in Mourne House Women’s Unit. Following her inquest Professor Phil Scraton of Queen’s University, one of the co-authors of the Human Rights Commission recent report on women in prison, had this to say:
Our research findings were clear that Annie should not have been in prison but in a therapeutic environment, and the jury endorsed this. However, in terms of international human rights standards, the Northern Ireland Prison Service failed institutionally in its duty of care, the conditions subjected her to inhumane and degrading treatment and, ultimately, her safety was compromised. It is clear from this tragic case that the Coroner’s recommendations, after the death in Mourne House of Janet Holmes in 1996, had not been taken seriously by the Prison Service.
Last year a young Derry man suffering from mental health issues was left permanently blind after he gouged out his eyes cut his wrists and mutilated his testicles whilst supposedly under the supervision of medical staff in Maghaberry prison. Also last year a prison officer admitted negligence over the death of a prisoner Colin Bell who took his own life in Maghaberry, despite being on suicide watch.

These cases demonstrate how little has improved following the death of both Janet Holmes and Annie Kelly. This is something that even the judiciary are beginning to recognise. In December 2014 Mr Justice Weir, a High Court Judge said;

'Medical treatment available to prisoners in Northern Ireland is not up to the required standards' after a prisoner with epilepsy was left lying in his cell for 45mins without medical treatment. Justice Weir went further saying:
I think it's lamentable, because if you're a prisoner you don't have the same opportunity that you do if you're in the community to go to a hospital or to go to a doctor to get help - you're depending on help being provided for you. Therefore the care provided in the prison should be of the very highest quality. I'm afraid that it doesn't seem that it is. People who are in prison need to be properly looked after and they are not being properly looked after.
The NIPS and the Stormont Justice Department have repeatedly failed in the their responsibilities, their facilities and their provision of services are not fit for purpose. I can only marvel at the fact that the RQIA, the Independent Health and Social Care Regulatory body for Northern Ireland haven't been given a permanent base there.

Prisoners are human beings, yet to attend medical appointments under prison staff supervision they are double handcuffed and subjected to forced strip searching in the way in and out of the north's top security prison. If animals were being treated in this way there would be a mass outcry, yet the silence around what appears to be the north's best kept secret remains deafening.

A prison sentence does not negate a person's human rights. Prisoners have the right to adequate medical attention. This right is protected under UK law with a Prisoner entitled to receive the care they would in the community. Additionally Prisoners are also protected under article three of the European Convention on Human Rights which provides for the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment.

The treatment outlined above does not comply with domestic or international standards and therefore serves to demonstrate a systematic failure and unacceptable level of neglect by our justice system.

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Anthony McIntyre

Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher

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