By Niall McCracken
A controversial unit for assessing prisoners coming to the end of their sentence is due to re-open in North Belfast in April this year, The Detail can reveal.
The prison service has spent approximately £80,000 on refurbishing the former site of the Prisoner Assessment Unit (PAU) on the Crumlin Road which closed in April 2011 following concerns about the conduct of both inmates and prison officers.
The Director General, Sue McAllister, says while preparing prisoners for integration back into society was “about more than bricks and mortar” she said the central location of the new “Working Out Unit” would help make the transition easier.
For the first time Ms McAllister also revealed detailed plans for a new facility to house Northern Ireland’s female prison population.
But on the wider issue of the fabric of the prison system, she said the condition of prison buildings in Northern Ireland remained one of the biggest challenges of the reform programme.“THE LOGISTICS HAVE BEEN CHALLENGING”
In April 2011 the former Prisoner Assessment Unit (PAU) was closed after staff raised concerns about incidents at the facility which is an annex of the former Crumlin Road prison.
It had been used as a step-down facility primarily for long term prisoners coming to the end of their sentence. Since its closure the majority of the prisoners eligible for this scheme have been managed from Maghaberry prison, something the Director General admits created difficulties.
“Certainly the logistics have been more challenging in the sense that the Crumlin Road site was so central, so it was easier for those prisoners to start the process of work experience placements or getting used to an ordinary community setting.
“But it is about more than prisoners doing a bit of shopping. It’s about risk assessment and then risk management, about supporting prisoners to make that transition. So we’re quite confident that we have managed to do a reasonable job while we have been restrained by the physical environment and the location at Maghaberry.”
The Independent Monitoring Board’s report on Maghaberry prison published in December 2013 stated that there were nearly 200 life sentenced prisoners in the jail.
It recommended that a replacement to the PAU was found as soon as possible at a site “divorced from the prison”.
In a statement to The Detail, the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) confirmed that it had spent approximately £80,000 on refurbishing the former site of the PAU in North Belfast which closed in April 2011 after staff raised concerns about incidents at the facility.
The Director General confirmed that it would be opening in April this year and said financial constraints meant a complete rebuild was an unrealistic target.
She said: “We did have designs for a brand new building, which would have given us more modern facilities, but money’s tight and we had to get the unit open quickly, because of the logistical difficulties.
“So actually what we are talking about in physical terms is quite a basic redecoration and some refurbishment to just bring the building up to decent standards, but it’s not a very expensive refit, it will not be a luxurious environment.
“It will be decent, it will be clean, it will be appropriate. So we’ve spent very little money actually in terms of capital expenditure in getting it open again.”
Ms McAllister said the focus would be on supporting prisoners to work outside as part of their transition back in to the community.
She said: “It’s not all about bricks and mortar and where people are, it’s sometimes just about the programmes and the routines we have got in place, and the staff we have got supporting those prisoners supervised, monitored and managed by professionals who know what to look for, in terms of danger and signs of risk.”“THE SITUATION IS NOT IDEAL”
The refurbishment on the Crumlin Road site isn’t the only development of the prison estate that has been an issue for the prison service here.
A Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) report from February 2013 found that the co-location of women and young men in Hydebank Wood Prison was “unacceptable”.
In October last year the Justice Minister David Ford told the Northern Ireland Assembly that he still wanted to develop a new prison for women offenders, but this was unlikely until the next comprehensive spending review.
Hydebank Wood prison is a unique establishment in that it is effectively two different detention centres on one site. It accommodates young male offenders, both sentenced and remand, between the age of 17 and 21 years. It also houses female remand and sentenced prisoners in Ash House, a house block within the complex.
In recent months Hydebank Wood has been the subject of “significant concerns” by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI). Its October 2013 report criticised the level of care provided in Hydebank.
It echoed many of the concerns previously highlighted in a 2007 report co-authored by professor Phil Scraton and senior lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster, Dr Linda Moore.
Professor Scraton says many of the issues in Hydebank have a link to how prisons were run in the past.
He said: “The lack of contact and recreation, poor mental healthcare, long periods of lock up, strip searching; there are a catalogue of issues that are a direct legacy of imprisonment during the conflict. What that does is undermine the rights of prisoners that would be expected in any other jurisdiction, but are denied here.
“There is no way I can say that simply or easily. Our research demonstrated that women in prison here were enduring imprisonment at a cost that was unique when compared to other parts of the UK.
“The most recent inspection reports are still damning and have absolutely condemned the conditions in which prisoners are held, particularly our young people and women. That is the legacy of the system that has neglected the needs and rights of ordinary prisoners and I think that is a legacy directly of the conflict.”
Professor Scraton repeated calls for women prisoners to be moved to a separate facility.
In her interview for The Legacy, Sue McAllister says this is closer to becoming a reality.
She said: “I agree that it isn’t ideal to have women and young men on the same site, in the same location. We are constrained by the buildings we have got, we are a small service, and we have to do what we can with the buildings we have. But part of our reform program includes a new separate purpose build facility for woman prisoners.”
The Director General said initial plans outline a facility that would contain a small number of traditional cells, while the rest of the accommodation will see female prisoners housed in smaller communities with more proportionate security arrangements.
She said: “We’ve been out looking at some secure mental health facilities, we have been out looking at other female prisons, just to get ideas for what we might design that would better suit the needs of our female population. So that’s on the plan, that’s on the books that will happen.”
Ms McAllister says NIPS have also been taking inspiration from female prisons in the rest of the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Scandinavian countries were prisons have more of a focus on “health and therapeutic environments”.
Ms McAllister said that “subject to funding being made available”, the new female prison would be complete within the next five years. She admitted that the physical condition of many of Northern Ireland’s prisons continued to be one of the biggest challenges facing prison reform.
“The built environment is a challenge. For example if you take Magilligan prison it is a really well managed prison, but its buildings, with a couple of exceptions are coming to the end of their life.
“If we had a magic wand and lots of money, if we could actually deliver those buildings that would help us to deliver those positive regimes. We’ll do it without the buildings, but it’s more of a challenge.”