After five deaths at the jail in the past year, prisons campaigner Alec McCrory raises concerns about the situation in Maghaberry.
The problems in Maghaberry are systemic ones. Recent suicides are not explained simply by neglect or failure to follow guidelines for the management of vulnerable prisoners. No, it goes much deeper into the system where there is a lack of empathy and basic respect for prisoners.
Screws are not social workers, fair enough, yet they are required to work with people who suffer from mental health problems and serious addictions. Also, the level of educational attainment amongst prisoners is frighteningly low and is reflected in their inability to articulate concerns and grievance.
The relationship between staff and prisoners is based on a power differential. This unequal relationship is not conducive to building understanding and trust between human beings. Every conceivable social prejudice towards prisoners is present in the general workforce in Maghaberry; prisoners are scum and are unworthy of proper treatment. A basic training regime for new recruits does nothing to alter these prejudices at the individual or collective level.
For example, I was up visiting a friend today and nothing seems to have changed regarding the attitude of some staff members. A female screw with a well earned reputation for being a bigot was her usual abrasive self. Although this was a minor issue it is reflective of the hostility that exists within that institution which is responsible for many of the problems we see today. I would not trust that woman with the care of a dog to say nothing of prisoners for whom she has the upmost disdain.
During the exchange I noticed she was not displaying an identification number on her uniform. When I challenged her on this she said it was none of my business and that she was not answerable to the likes of me. I reminded her that a court ruling last year required all members of staff to wear numbers for identification purposes and that the compliance date was long past: to which she merely shrugged her shoulders. Why an ignoramus such as this is allowed to engage with the public is typical of the blase attitude of those responsible for managing the prison.
Finally, Maghaberry requires a complete overhaul at every level of the system. This will only happen when the political parties at Stormont begin to take the matter seriously. Successive reports have damned the prison as being totally unfit for purpose. As prisons are now a devolved matter, the responsibility for the present crisis sits squarely on the shoulders of the local parties; the major portion resting with the devilish DUP/Sinn Fein coalition. How many more deaths must there be, how many more damming reports, how many more protests before this nightmare institution is put to rights?