Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 54)



  40. Are many regarded as addicts supplied drugs by the Prison Medical Service?
  (Mr Mogg) There is obviously a programme to deal with anybody who comes into Maghaberry on their first committal who might be considered to be an addict, to bring them off drugs, but we do not use substitute treatments at the moment.
  (Mr Bain) No, we do not have anybody.
  (Mr Halward) It is not our policy to supply substitutes. Our policy is one of detox of people on drugs.


  41. I have some familiarity with the search techniques employed by Customs and Excise in terms of people coming into the country. I take it that the Service is totally familiar with those. Are you precluded in any way, either by policy or by statute, from using the more extreme methods of verification as to whether drugs are being carried?
  (Mr Mogg) We did have the same devices that Customs and Excise used. We were particularly interested at the time in whether people were trying to smuggle in weapons or explosives. That was our target at that time. We have some of those facilities available for a prisoner who might be carrying the drugs internally, having transferred them on visits, which I assume is what you are referring to. Yes, we have those facilities available to us. Certainly in Maghaberry anyway our prisoners are not given quite the opportunity to secrete drugs in body cavities as somebody trying to bring them through airports from another country. Generally speaking, we would only use such measures if we were fairly sure that we had seen a prisoner swallow something on a visit, in other words drugs secreted perhaps in a condom. If we had seen that happen on our video surveillance we could use that device then to deal with that situation. Certainly at Maghaberry, the interesting finding of Mr Murray's report was that because our perimeter security in terms of the drugs getting into the prison from outside is fairly tight—and we do find quite a lot of attempts to smuggle cannabis particularly into the prison—that actually the biggest trade in Maghaberry was in prescribed medicines which prisoners were able to get from our doctors and then they were being sold on. As far as he was concerned, that was an indication that there was not a lot of dealing going on within the prison. Obviously you do not want to drop your guard on this because there is a fairly heavy drug culture in certain towns in Northern Ireland and we had a significant number of our clients who come from those particular areas and we have a lot of prisoners on remand for dealing and possession. We are constantly trying to keep on top of that problem.

Mr Clarke

  42. Forgive my ignorance, but unlike some members of the Committee I have not had the benefit of visiting Maghaberry. Could we come back to operational issues? In answer to a question from Dr Palmer you said that there was seemingly at the moment no purpose in seeking the introduction of segregation or that it did not seem that segregation was back on the agenda for those prisoners in Maghaberry. However, recent press reports have suggested otherwise in terms of disturbances or periodic press reports have reported disturbances. Are we saying that the press reports are inaccurate?
  (Mr Mogg) Yes.

  43. Or that there is a chance that it could still happen.
  (Mr Mogg) It is something just under the surface all the time. If a prisoner has some sort of allegiance to a Loyalist paramilitary organisation, he is not going to be particularly friendly to another prisoner who has an affiliation to a Nationalist or Republic paramilitary organisation. Obviously there will be some confrontations. The most recent press report which was that allegedly a Loyalist leader had had a standup fight with a Republican leader actually took place in the gymnasium during a football match. Yes, there was a standup fight but it was over a foul on the football pitch. The upshot of this was that they eventually went back to the wing and had a discussion about their dispute and decided that was the end of it. In fact the report appeared in the press after the Republican prisoners concerned had been released from prison, so the idea that this was an ongoing campaign was not accurate. We are not complacent about this for one minute. Obviously within the prison we have prisoners who claim allegiance to a range of dissident organisations and to the standard recognised organisations and we monitor the situation constantly to see how best to deal with it.

  44. You say there is no need for complacency. Is that the correct term or is there still a continuing pressure even though that pressure is very small?
  (Mr Mogg) There is a continuing pressure but it is a small pressure at the moment. There is no campaign as such.

  45. The Committee was pleased to see the setup of the Vulnerable Prisoners' Unit. It was one of the things in the initial report which there was some criticism for. I know it has only been in operation for six months but I just wondered whether you could outline its regime to the Committee, by that I mean give us a better understanding of how it operates in terms of whether or not prisoners ever leave the unit, whether visits take place, how prisoners are selected, those sorts of questions.
  (Mr Mogg) I shall start with how prisoners are selected and go on to the regime issues. Basically there are three types of prisoners to whom we would offer places in the VPU. There is a prisoner who needs to be separated from others by virtue of the offence for which he is charged; obviously some sex offenders fall into that category. There are those prisoners who need to be in there either because of their past employment, for example, policemen and prison officers, or prisoners who are inadequate, in other words they would be bullied irrespective of what their offence was. They are just natural prey to the bullying element. Finally, there is a group who, for whatever reason, need protection by virtue of affiliation to organisations or problems outside or feuds outside. Although the VPU has all three of those types on it at any one time, obviously the extreme cases of people who are under threat may be accommodated somewhere else in the prison. These would be people who, although they are under threat, we feel they can be accommodated in the VPU. The VPU has two landings of a normal house which is used for the induction process. Basically the other prisoners who are in there are prisoners who are new to the prison or prisoners waiting transfer to Magilligan prison. Consequently they tend not to know the prisoners in the VPU all that well. That reduces some of the pressure. The daily routine is that all the VPU prisoners every morning are offered the opportunity to go to the gymnasium, because obviously exercise is one of the difficulties because you need to be able to put them in an area where they cannot be got at by others. They are offered the opportunity to go to the gym every morning so they can get an hour in the gym, those who opt to go. Really for the rest of the day they are free to associate with each other on the landings. Education classes take place on the landing and there are dining areas and so on and so forth. There is association between them throughout the day. As far as visits are concerned, we would make a judgement in each case whether it is appropriate to put them in a normal visiting area, which is closely supervised by staff, or on occasions we have a separate visiting facility where they and their family would be separate from all other prisoners. Again, one makes a judgement which is appropriate in each case. I am not saying for one minute that the regime they are getting is as comprehensive; there is not as much choice in it as the other prisoners would get but it is a jolly sight better than actually being on a landing and being bullied by other people and being frightened to come out of your cell.

  46. Is there a chance to progress out of the unit?
  (Mr Mogg) Yes. One of the interesting things about Northern Ireland which is unique in my experience—because having worked in the English Prison Service this certainly is not the case—is that generally speaking once a prisoner is sentenced, even if it is a sex offender, they appear in Northern Ireland to be able to move into the general sentenced population. Generally speaking, we would not have any sentenced sex offenders on the VPU. We would still maintain on the VPU those prisoners who either because of their past or because of their inadequacy might have to stay there once sentenced and again that is for protection. What we do is review those regularly and obviously we use the offer of returning to normal location should their behaviour not be up to standard. One of the dangers of any Vulnerable Prisoners' Unit is that you end up with bullies in there. We are constantly keeping an eye on that and the threat is there that if you become a bully in the VPU you will go back on to normal location. Those controls seem to be working fairly well, so far anyway.

  47. Recent press reports suggested that within the last three years almost 400 people had been injured as a result of fires in Maghaberry. Is the figure accurate? Is there a particular problem with the outbreak of fires in Maghaberry?
  (Mr Mogg) I cannot say whether the figure is totally accurate but certainly over the last three years—you appreciate I have only been at Maghaberry since December last year so I can only speak for my tenure—there was a fashion for setting fires in the prison and this was used by those prisoners who wanted to disrupt things and who set these fires. Amongst the prisoners there were one or two prisoners who were convicted of offences which were to do with arson and seemed expert at being able to construct devices which would set fires. What I have done since I have been at Maghaberry is first of all to reduce the amount of flammable material. One of the targets always was the television sets in the recreation rooms and they would set a device in there and these things would catch fire, lots and lots of very dangerous smoke and the effect would be that staff would be off sick with smoke injuries. Quite simply, under health and safety I removed the televisions and that obviously reduces the problem quite significantly.
  (Mr Halward) We might add that there are televisions in cells at Maghaberry. We are not depriving prisoners of televisions altogether.
  (Mr Mogg) It was unnecessary to have both. The other thing is to make sure there is not too much rubbish left around generally and keeping an eye out when groups of prisoners are getting together and they may be working on this. Certainly in the last nine months there has been a significant reduction in the number of fires, but there are still prisoners who think that this is a means of disrupting the routine and it is a strange phenomena which I have certainly not come across in my prison career other than in Northern Ireland. It is extremely dangerous obviously.

  48. Just for the record, could you break down those injuries in terms of number of injuries to staff and the number of injuries to prisoners?
  (Mr Mogg) We could certainly provide you with that information. I do not have it to hand.[4]

  (Mr Mogg) May I add that there were two other things of significance. One was to introduce restrictions on the movement of prisoners within Maghaberry, previously prisoners could go from their own bit of prison into another. The houses at Maghaberry have about 140 prisoners in each and at one stage we allowed prisoners when on association to move freely throughout the whole of that house. We now divide them roughly into half for those purposes. So somebody cannot nip downstairs and set a fire and nip back to their own landing. We have done some physical improvements. We have got devices called inundation points in the cell doors so if there is a fire inside a cell you can put it out much more quickly. Our policy is to keep cell doors closed now whether the prisoners are in or out because the problem in most cases is smoke spreading.

  (Mr Halward) A particularly bad period during my time in Northern Ireland was around the end of 1998 and the first couple of months of 1999 when it really was very serious. It is much better now. Things of this sort are a bit of a fashion in prisons, would you believe? Albany in England had a lot of problems with fires in the mid 1970's, a very old example. Then you can break out of it. We think we are getting on top of the position at Maghaberry but it is quite tricky.


  49. As a matter of reassurance that this session is coming towards an end, let me ask three quick housekeeping questions at the end. I listened to the exchanges with Dr Palmer where he was preoccupied about cost and your responses to them. What I cannot remember was whether he asked you for the officer/prisoner ratio once the staff reduction programme had been completed. If he did not, and that is a failing on my part not to be sure, it would be helpful to have it, and it would be helpful to have the comparable figures for England, Scotland and Wales. We do not need to have them in this session, but statistically it would be helpful to have them. I am conscious of a need for a legislative base for the Prison Service. Is there anything you can tell us about what you think the timetable might be?
  (Mr Bain) As we said in our briefing, we are operating off a Prison Act Northern Ireland 1953, which has been amended many times and to be frank it is quite difficult to work out what the legislation is in a number of areas. Our Prison Rules are rather more up to date from 1995 and the fact that they come from 1995 has been very helpful with the introduction of the Human Rights Act in Northern Ireland because our Rules were drafted to take that into account which has meant we have had to change rather less though there have been a couple of areas. One was removal of the powers of adjudication and very shortly legislation will be introduced in this place to deal with the removal of the Secretary of State's power to determine the release date of life sentenced prisoners. There are other areas where our legislation really is no longer appropriate, which is not surprising given it is getting on for 50 years old. We have within the last couple of weeks written to a number of interest groups in Northern Ireland saying that we intend to review all the legislation and asking them to identify any particular areas of concern to them. Subject to getting a slot in the legislative programme, we would hope to be in a position to bring forward a completely new legislative framework probably in 2001-2002.

  50. I offer you the slight comfort, and I realise it will be slight, that the Crown Estate Paving Commission, which was preoccupied under the original legislation with lighting and paving, operates under an Act of 1827 and improvements in lighting technology have of course occurred in the intervening 173 years. What is more serious however is that they are now responsible for parking regulations and coping with that under the 1827 legislation which is a great deal more complicated. You have answered the question I asked. The Prisons Ombudsman. Is there any light you can shed on that or is that all going to be part of the same legislation?
  (Mr Bain) That would be part; our intention would be to take that forward as part of the same legislation. We have decided in principle that we should have one as part of our overall review of the complaints procedure and we shall be able to introduce parts of that before we have an Ombudsman and that is aimed at solving the problems much closer to the point of action and delivery. As regards the Ombudsman, we have looked there at whether we should have a statutory scheme as they have in Scotland or a non-statutory scheme as they presently have in England and Wales. We were conscious that nearly all the other ombudsmen in Northern Ireland are on a statutory basis, notably the police and military complaints. We think that would be more appropriate for Northern Ireland, indeed I understand that our English colleagues are minded to move in that direction as well. Again it is finding a legislative vehicle. The first one which is readily clear to us is our review of the prisoners' legislation. If there were another suitable legislative vehicle we might be able to move faster.
  (Mr Halward) We try to learn from the experience both of Scotland and in particular England and Wales over the whole business of requests and complaints and the Ombudsman. One of the things they found in England was that the people who most used the Ombudsman were those who arguably least needed to: long-term experienced prisoners with good access to lawyers and so on. We are trying to design a system in Northern Ireland which gets at the more vulnerable prisoners, a system which is easy for them to use, which enables most complaints to be raised and solved almost at landing level. We are out to consultation on that at the moment with a view to introducing that quite soon; within months rather than a longer timescale. We think that will achieve most of the objectives that we need in this whole area. We then just need an Ombudsman for the top one or two per cent of issues.

  51. In anticipation of legislation, have you formed a view as to who should appoint the Ombudsman and to whom the Ombudsman would report?
  (Mr Bain) No, that is a matter which will be taken forward during the consultation process. There are several options. We would want to look at best practice elsewhere and take the views of the communities and the interest groups.

  52. My final housekeeping question relates to the formalisation of the role of the Prison Inspectorate in Northern Ireland. Are you likely to be affected by the current review which is occurring of the Inspectorate in England and Wales? Is there any hazard of that delaying the work on your side? I recall that in our report we did raise as a proposal the possibility of a link with the Scottish Inspectorate and I wondered whether there was any light you could shed on either of those issues.
  (Mr Bain) On the links with Scotland, yes, that was indeed looked at by my colleagues. At that time it was felt it was not appropriate. The views of Sir David Ramsbotham were also taken on that and as you appreciate, he was already involved and wished to continue in that role. There are two factors: first of all the Criminal Justice Review in Northern Ireland recommends a joint inspectorate. We expect the Government's response on that very soon and that might point us in a particular direction. There is of course the review in England and Wales. That is not actually holding up any inspections of prisons in Northern Ireland; Sir David has already started.

  53. No, I was not implying that.
  (Mr Bain) It might delay a little bit formalisation of the arrangement. If there were going to be any significant delay we should certainly look again at the possibility of Scotland taking on the role. We certainly wish to have it formalised at an early stage and put on a proper footing.

  54. I am quite sure I speak on behalf of the whole Committee that we are extremely grateful to you for the evidence you have given and the answers you have given have served to confirm the very favourable impression we formed of your progress report. I am conscious of a seminar taking place tomorrow between senior managers and trade union representatives and if it were appropriate I hope you would not hesitate to refer to the session which we have had and the very good view we have taken of the general progress which has been effected since we published our report.
  (Mr Halward) Thank you very much. I shall be very happy to pass that on tomorrow morning.

4   Note added by witness: During 2000, five fires were started by prisoners in Maghaberry. These resulted in 13 staff suffering smoke inhalation and two prisoners receiving minor injuries. Back

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