Number of prisoner complaints in NI more than halves

The interim Prisoner Ombudsman has praised a drop in the number of complaints by inmates in Northern Ireland.

The total more than halved in the past year.

The decrease was partially explained by the more stable situation at the high-security Maghaberry prison in Co Antrim and improvements in complaints handling, the watchdog said.

Its annual report for 2017-18 found that overall 1,953 complaints were received from prisoners, a 55% decrease on last year.

All but 167 were from separated prisoners on Roe three and four landings at Maghaberry prison.

Maghaberry Prison
Maghaberry Prison (Michael Cooper/PA)

Inmates can ask to join the separated regime if they consider themselves to be political prisoners and associate themselves with a terrorist grouping.

The report said the 167 complaints from integrated non-paramilitary prisoners were “commensurate with a lower prison population”.

However interim ombudsman Brendan McGuigan said the work of the office was being delayed by ongoing suspension of the Stormont Assembly.

The previous ombudsman, Tom McGonigle, retired on August 31 2017.

Without a justice minister in post, a permanent replacement cannot be appointed.

Mr McGuigan, who is also the Chief Inspector for Criminal Justice, was asked to act as interim Ombudsman and has now been doing so for more than a year.

The continuing absence of an appointed Ombudsman has in turn held up the production of the 2018-21 Corporate Plan.

The continuing suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly has also delayed the process for placing the Ombudsman’s office on a statutory footing, Mr McGuigan said.

While the Justice (No 2) Bill had received royal assent in May 2016, the underpinning regulations could not be completed before the collapse of the Assembly in January 2017.

Mr McGuigan told the Press Association: “This was particularly frustrating, the legislation was there and was passed in 2016 however the Assembly then needed to ratify the underpinning regulations and that was not done.”

He said the lack of statutory status means that bodies such as the Northern Ireland Prison Service and health trusts do not have to accept the Ombudsman Office’s recommendations.

But he said they accept most of them because they see the “importance of the work”.

He confirmed his commitment to continue to oversee the Ombudsman’s office so that its work can continue until such an appointment is made.

  • 1,953 complaints were received from prisoners
  • 55% decrease on last year
  • All but 167 came from separated paramilitary inmates
  • Three deaths in custody
  • Nine recommendations from improvement arising from deaths
  • 134 recommendations for improvement following prisoner complaints
  • Three quarters of recommendations accepted by Northern Ireland Prison Service
  • 1,475 people were held in NI's three prisons last April.

Mr McGuigan said the independent investigation of prisoner complaints helps to promote better relations.

“The independent investigation of complaints by the Office of the Prisoner Ombudsman can help instil in prisoners greater confidence that their welfare is treated seriously,” he said.

“It can also help reduce tension and promote better relations.

“My staff are dedicated to the impartial and independent investigation of prisoner complaints and I would like to acknowledge the contribution of everyone in my office and the continued cooperation received from the agencies with whom we work.”

The Ombudsman’s report also revealed that it looked into three deaths in custody in 2017-18, two “self-inflicted” and one from natural causes.

The deaths occurred in May, August and September of 2017.

The report found that follow-up activity by the South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust (SEHSCT) and the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) to support other prisoners and staff was prompt and appropriate.

In total nine recommendations for improvement were made in the published reports of the investigations into two of the deaths in custody, all of these were accepted by the Trust and the Prison Service.

Following prisoners’ complaints, 134 recommendations for improvement were made and 76% of these had been accepted by the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

There were 1,475 people held at Northern Ireland’s three prisons, Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank College, on April 1 2018.