15/06/2011

Lock-up Was Factor In Prisoner's Death

The practice of locking up prisoners for almost all of the day has been identified as a major factor in a recent spate of custody suicides in the North.

The issue has come to light after a teenage prisoner - who was locked in his cell for around 22 hours a day because of short-staffing - committed suicide.

Allyn Baxter, 19, from Lisburn, hanged himself at Hydebank Wood Prison and Young Offenders Centre, Belfast, on July 31 last year. He was at increased risk of suicide with a history of substance abuse and self-harm but was left locked up in a prison that was under-staffed.

Now, the NI Prisoner Ombudsman Pauline McCabe has published her report into the death: "Of particular concern is the extended length of time in which Allyn, a vulnerable prisoner, was locked in his cell.

"While it is not possible to say that the final outcome would have been different if Allyn had not been locked up for such long periods, evidence clearly shows that lower rates of death by suicide are associated with higher rates of purposeful activity," she said.

There has been a rash of such deaths in NI custody with the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) insisting that it is committed to establishing appropriate regimes for all offenders in their care.

Director General Colin McConnell said the report by the Prisoner Ombudsman into the death highlights the scale of the challenge faced by staff dealing with vulnerable prisoners.

He said that the Ombudsman had not made recommendations in her report into the death in custody, but has instead listed 18 issues of concern identified during the course of the investigation.

He said these have already been accepted by NIPS who are working with the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust (SEHSCT), who has lead responsibility for health care within prisons, to address the issues.

"Any death in custody is a tragedy and I want to offer my deepest condolences to the Baxter family at this very difficult time.

"The Ombudsman Report brings to the fore the challenges that the Prison Service and our health care partners face when dealing with young, vulnerable offenders admitted into our care," he commented.

"I am committed to ensuring that we have in place, and that we adhere to, the appropriate mechanisms to identify and support vulnerable prisoners.

"As part of this commitment, an audit of safer custody processes is underway to ensure that those procedures and interventions are in place and that they are complied with across the Service."

Reform Needed

The senior executive was speaking today on foot of various projects to address the issue.

For example, in March this year, a conference to promote a safer environment for prisoners and staff was held by the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

After several, high-profile tragedies in NI prisons where inmates managed to kill themselves - often in spite of being under a special 'watch', the Safer Custody Conference took place at the Prison Service College in Millisle.

According to the Stormont Department of Justice, "this further underpins the Prison Service's obligation and commitment in providing a managed, decent and secure living and working environment in which we can deliver high value services to prisoners".

The Director General of the Prison Service, Colin McConnell, said: "I fully support this first Safer Custody Conference under my tenure.

"Clearly the need for improvement is reinforced in the recently published interim Review of the Northern Ireland Prison Service report. The work being undertaken by our Safer Custody team is one of our top priorities."

Crucial

Speaking today, the Director General said that this is a crucial time in the history of the Northern Ireland Prison Service as it embarks on a programme of fundamental reform.

"It has been accepted that the Service has to change and we have already started that work. The initial report by Dame Anne Owers published earlier this year has provided a vision of the service for the future.

"It has looked into every aspect of the Service and transforming that vision into a reality will be a huge challenge for everyone in the Northern Ireland Prison Service," he continued.

"At its core is how we as a service deal with the complex mix of offenders that come into our care and putting in place the appropriate regimes to meet that need.

"The journey of reform must start with getting the basics right across all levels of the Prison Service. I am committed to making that happen and that over the next three years, we will become a very different organisation to that which we are today."

Also commenting, Desi Bannon Director of Adult Services at the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust (SEHSCT) said: "The South Eastern Trust offers its sincere condolences to the Baxter family; death by suicide is a terrible tragedy.

"The Trust is working with the Northern Ireland Prison Service to address the areas of concern highlighted in the Ombudsman's report. A service improvement board is in place in Hydebank Wood and has developed a range of work streams for better healthcare in Prisons.

"A new nursing management structure is in place to drive forward an agenda of change to improve standards and practices to meet the needs of young offenders.

"New documentation has been put in place and Primary Care Services are contacted following each committal.

"Regular audits will take place to ensure practices are consistent and actions taken to continually improve standards.

"Basic life support training is in place and is considered a priority. All staff are given annual updates," he said.

"Training has been provided to staff to enable them to identify those prisoners who are in difficulty due to withdrawal from alcohol/drugs.

"The Trust fully supports the Director General and his team as together we strive to make improvements in every aspect of prisoners' daily lives."

See: Prison Death Mourned

See: Safety Focus For Prison Service Conference


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