Tuesday, 17 June 2014

A fine line between punishment and abuse.

The treatment of prisoners is an issue that concerns me as I see it to be a situation that all too often falls under the radar, with the exception of the efforts of some prison campaign and human rights groups. In fairness there are politicians north and south of Ireland pro-actively working on this issue whilst others continue work only on a reactionary basis as opposed to  addressing these outstanding issues in line with Human Rights Legislation and their party policies.

A few years ago I was actively involved in a prison campaign, the campaign was real eye opener for me on a number of levels, primarily to the realisation that draconian punitive practices of the past continue today. These practices are designed to brutalise and humiliate as opposed to rehabilitate, such methods have been criticised by many yet continue under the guise of legality and security. These practices include degrading strip searches which could easily be replaced by body scanners similar to those used at airports, lengthy lock-up which in some cases can amount to 23 hours per day, forced isolation which many consider a form of torture and the ongoing denial of adequate medical treatment.

Just today I learned through the media of how a young man from Derry suffering from  mental health issues gouged out his eyes and has blinded himself, cut his wrists and also mutilated his testicles whilst supposedly under the supervision of medical staff in Maghaberry prison. Concerns over this man's mental wellbeing had been raised by both police doctors and prison medical staff yet it is clear this man was not given the medical attention he so desperately needed.

Many people would happily turn a blind eye to the plight of prisoners, yet many are incarcerated due in part to their circumstances.  Roger Houchin a former governor of Barlinnie prison in Glasgow carried out a study which found that a significant proportion of prisoners came from some of the most deprived communities. This is not to be dismissive of the reasons why some people end up in prison or the impact of their crimes upon their victims. It is a simple fact that a prison sentence does not negate a prisoner's human rights, including the right to adequate medical attention. This right is protected under article three of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment.

In the case of Colin Bell a life sentence prisoner who completed suicide in Maghaberry in 2008, the prison ombudsman Pauline McCabe made 44 recommendations.  One of these recommendations was that Prison staff were to be made aware of the policies relating to observation cells and self-harm and suicide prevention. You would assume that knowledge of these policies would be paramount in terms of staff carrying out their duties, clearly not.

In 2009 Prison inspectors Dame Anne Owers and Dr Michael McGuire said “Maghaberry Prison was so bad the safety of inmates was at risk.” They also claimed that Maghaberry was one of the most “expensive prisons” to run yet one of the “worst in the UK.” These claims were made following a random visit to the prison just six months after a man hanged himself whilst under supervision in a specialist unit. At that time it was suggested that the prison failed “to meet standards in all four of the internationally recognised tests for prisoner welfare.”

Dr McGuire also voiced disappointment at the failure to implement over 54% of the 155 recommendations made following the inspection of the prison in 2006. The concerns raised by Dr McGuire included the following:

There was no local suicide or self-harm policy for the prison

There was little therapeutic support for some very vulnerable men

Poor monitoring procedures were in place for those at risk

In October 2013 in a statement relating to the implementation of a Drugs and Rehab Unit in Maghaberry Prison  the Stormont Justice Minister David Ford stated that 9 out of the 40 recommendations outlined in the 2011 Owers report had been implemented. 

It doesn't take a maths genius to work out that 31 of the recommendations have yet to be addressed, we should be asking why not? We also need to question whether or not the 54% of recommendations made during the 2006 inspection into Maghaberry prison have been implemented, not forgetting the 44 recommendations from the Prison Ombudsman. Questions must be asked when a vulnerable prisoner alleged to be under medical supervision has the scope to inflict extensive physical harm upon himself .

In the recent case of Solicitor Damien Murray the Judge, Mr Justice Weir suspended his sentence on the following basis... ”In the light of Murray's current psychological and mental health state, he did not believe that he would receive the appropriate medical treatment if he sent him to Maghaberry Prison.” So clearly this deficiency is publicly acknowledged within the justice circles yet the many vulnerable people who don't have their sentence suspended are placed in an environment which is detrimental to their physical and mental wellbeing.

Prisoners are entitled to receive the care they would receive in the community anything less demonstrates a systematic failure and unacceptable level of neglect by the justice system.

We must also acknowledge the role of the Northern Ireland Executive in this matter as the running of prisons falls within the remit of the Stormont Justice Department.

By failing to implement regulatory recommendations the Stormont Justice Department is clearly not doing it's job, central to which is their duty of care in ensuring that the wellbeing and rights of vulnerable prisoners are upheld and respected. 


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