David Ford signals turnaround on Magilligan prison closure

prison officer protests Prison officer representatives handed over a petition to Justice Minister David Ford last week

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Justice Minister David Ford has signalled a change of mind on the future of Northern Ireland's second largest prison, at Magilligan, near Londonderry.

A prison service document compiled several months ago said the prison would be closed in six years' time,

However, on Monday, Mr Ford said it would probably remain open.

A week ago, prison officers went to Stormont to protest at the proposed closure.

They gave the justice minister a petition with more than 5,000 signatures against the plan.

Exactly a week later, Mr Ford told the Assembly that closure was no longer the preferred option.

"I am now of the opinion that a convincing case might be made for the retention of a prison in the north west on the Magilligan site and of course I would welcome the positive impact this could have both for Magilligan staff and for the local economy," he said.

"I want to stress that further work is needed before a definitive decision can be made both to ensure that adequate rehabilitation opportunities can be identified and provided; and to look creatively at how family links could be better facilitated and sustained so as to reduce barriers to the effective rehabilitation of prisoners.

"However, I am now inclined towards retaining a prison on the Magilligan site, subject to evidence being provided that issues around rehabilitation and family links can be adequately addressed."

Cost will be a major factor in the final decision. The estimated price tag for a new jail on land near Maghaberry was at least £140m.

Asked about the cost implications on Monday, David Ford told the Assembly: "Certainly there will be a lesser capital requirement if we are to retain a prison at Magilligan than there would be if a new prison was to be built elsewhere."

The change of heart over the prison means Mr Ford is rejecting the advice of a review team that he appointed.

Magilligan opened its gates 40 years ago. Built on the site of a former army base, a number of World War II Nissen huts are still used as workshops.

It currently holds more than 500 low to medium risk male prisoners. The majority are held in three H-blocks, which the review team described as unfit for purpose.

The standard of accommodation was not the only problem that they identified.

Magilligan Prison Magilligan currently holds more than 500 prisoners

Magilligan is 71 miles from Belfast, which means a long drive for visiting families as most of the prisoners are from the greater Belfast area. The review team said a new medium security prison should be built in a more central location.

A prison service document obtained by the BBC earlier this year said Magilligan had outlived its useful economic life, and that a new medium security establishment was needed.

Five years ago, the former security minister, Paul Goggins, had said a new jail would be built on the site of Magilligan, but the document signalled that plan had changed.

Land beside Northern Ireland's high security prison at Maghaberry near Lisburn had been identified as the most likely location for the new prison, which it was estimated would cost around £140m.

While no final decision has been taken, it appears that land will not be needed as the justice minister has made it clear his preference is to retain the Magilligan site.

But David Ford has accepted the review team's recommendations for Maghaberry.

David Ford Mr Ford said he would make a statement in the new year

He told the assembly the prison service would press ahead with plans to re-develop it into three mini prisons dealing with different categories of offenders - for remand prisoners, low to medium security prisoners, and those prisoners requiring high-security.

He has also accepted a recommendation to develop a new, separate prison unit for women, who are currently co-located with young offenders at Hydebank Wood in south Belfast.

There are also plans to develop Hydebank into a secure college for 18 to 22 year old prisoners to improve their educational standards and chances of finding work when released.

The minister told the Assembly that young offenders at Hydebank Wood "present a particularly stark portrait of need."

He revealed that:

  • More than 50% of the population (of Hydebank) are below Level 1 in numeracy skills;
  • 35% are below Level 1 in literacy skills.
  • 30% are dyslexic;
  • 40% present with ADHD.

"We know how important learning, skills and employability are to reducing the risk of young offenders re-offending on release, so we need to better address issues around poor educational attainment and low skills within this offender group," he said.

The minister said he would make a statement in the new year to outline his final decisions on the development of the prison estate, including a definitive statement on the future of Magilligan Prison.

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