A prison transformed: Maghaberry praised for dramatic turnaround

‘Unsafe, unstable’ jail has become one of the best, where fathers in prison have enhanced visits and contact with their children

A Northern Ireland prison judged “unsafe, unstable and disrespectful” three years ago has now “outcomes among the best”, according to a new report.

The findings, published on Monday by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate NI (CJINI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP), are based on an unannounced inspection of Maghaberry Prison earlier this year.

Maghaberry prison – near Lisburn, Co Antrim – is Northern Ireland’s only Category A high-security prison and holds those at highest risk.

More than 800 men are currently serving prison sentences in Maghaberry, including separated paramilitary prisoners from loyalist and republican backgrounds and those serving life sentences.


The report found that the prison felt safer, with levels of violence and disorder much reduced, and the relationship between staff and prisoners had been “transformed”.

Rehabilitation and release planning was cited as the highest performing area in the prison, with the Families Matter programme – which allows fathers in prison to have enhanced visits and contact with their children – praised as “a model of good practice”.

The chief inspectors – Brendan McGuigan, chief inspector of CJINI and Peter Clarke, chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales – said it was an “immensely encouraging inspection of a prison that had previously struggled to provide a safe, respectful and purposeful environment for the men held.”

“All four of our healthy-prison assessments had improved since 2015, and two were now at least reasonably good.

“We rarely see a prison make the sort of progress evident at Maghaberry, and it is to the credit of all those involved that many of the outcomes for the men held at the prison are now among the best we have seen in this type of prison in recent years.”

The report’s main concern was that there had been five self-inflicted deaths in custody since January 2016 and while an action plan had been established its recommendations had not been fully implemented.

It also found that levels of vulnerability among prisoners were high, and while recorded levels of self-harm had been reduced to a level comparable to similar prisons, more than 500 Supporting Prisoners At Risk cases had been noted in the previous six months, which was “very high”.

Observation cells had been used 200 times.

“These numbers are unprecedentedly high in our experience and did not demonstrate a caring approach to understanding or alleviating vulnerability or self-harm,” the report found.

It also noted that a number of incidents had occurred where the prompt actions of staff had saved the lives of prisoners who had attempted suicide or serious self-harm.

Fourteen recommendations were made for further improvement, including that monitoring of the death-in-custody action plan be made more robust, that poorer outcomes experienced by Catholic prisoners in some key areas should be investigated thoroughly.

The report also recommended that those who are vulnerable to self-harm should be kept safe but should also receive individual recorded care involving peer and family support which seeks to address the underlying causes of their vulnerability.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times