Northern Ireland

NI prisoner complaints 'more than double' - Ombudsman

The front gates of Maghaberry Prison

Complaints made by inmates in NI's prisons have more than doubled in the last year, according to the NI Prisoner Ombudsman's annual report.

It follows a report published last week on the death in custody of 19-year-old Allyn Baxter who took his own life.

The Ombudsman found he had been locked in his cell for too long.

A total of 328 "eligible complaints" were received from prisoners over the 12-month period to March this year, an increase of 128% on last year.

Many of the complaints were related to lock downs - where a prisoner is confined to their cell for up to 22 hours a day. Issues related to night checks and family contacts and complaints about prison staff were also highlighted.

Deaths in custody were also investigated by the Ombudsman and its findings are included in the annual report.

It states that 29 people have died in Northern Ireland's prisons since 2005. Ten of these were ruled to be suicide and three were related to drugs. The remaining deaths were mostly found to be of natural causes or illness.

In the year up to the end of March, the Prisoner Ombudsman's office investigated and reported on the deaths of nine prisoners.

The tenth report was into the death in custody of Allyn Baxter who died last August after three days in custody at Hydebank Wood.

The Ombudsman, Pauline McCabe, found 18 areas of concern in his treatment.

She said that during his last two days in custody, he had been locked up for about 22 hours each day.

She added that prison authorities also failed to properly recognise his vulnerability and effectively communicate details of previous health problems.

Historical legacy

Mr Baxter had a history of drug and alcohol abuse and self-harm.

Having lost his mother to cancer aged six, he had been fostered twelve times and had most recently been living in a hostel.

A further six investigations into deaths in custody are ongoing.

Mrs McCabe said that while the rise in complaints showed an increased confidence in the Ombudsman's office, it also highlighted "the many respects in which the current regime in our prisons is in need of reform".

"The single biggest issue, and the issue which has caused me most concern, is the significant number of lock downs and periods of restricted regime that prisoners have experienced, along with the consequent failure to deliver privileges earned," she said.

"The issue of lock downs has also featured heavily in recent death in custody investigation reports.

"The way Northern Ireland's prisons are run continues to be affected by its historical legacy and decades of conflict, with shortcomings in human resources policies and working practices, and major issues relating to management, leadership, culture and industrial relations."

Mrs McCabe said there were "fundamental issues" to be resolved in the Prison Service.

"The recent report by Anne Owers and her review team, which pointed out a compelling series of solutions and recommendations, will make a crucial contribution to addressing these challenges," she added.

"We have the opportunity now to do things differently and it really is time to decide what we want."

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites