Sentinel readers learned Magilligan was doomed last October

THE Sentinel warned last autumn that the proposed new £200m jail at Magilligan was doomed unless politicians ignored a high-powered review team’s ‘ideal’ option for a new prison in a more suitable location than the mouth of Lough Foyle.

Sentinel readers were informed back in October 2011 that the £200m build - first trumpeted by former Prisons Minister Paul Goggins over three years ago - was dead-in-the-water unless local politicians disregarded the recommendation of an independent prison review.

Over three years ago former NIO Minister Mr Goggins announced a new 800 capacity jail costing £200m would be built at Magilligan with work expected to start in 2011/12. It was suggested then the prison would be built on a phased basis and completed by 2015.

But in October last the final report of Dame Anne Owens’ Prison Review Team, whilst arguing that a clear decision should be made on the role and future of Magilligan, stated: “Ideally, a new prison should be built in a more accessible location. Failing that, there should be a timed programme either to rebuild it for a new role or to refurbish existing accommodation.”

Justice Minister David Ford - declaring the final report of the review team as “uncomfortable reading” - was unable to commit to a rebuild of the County Londonderry jail at its current location when pressed by DUP MLA Gregory Campbell at Stormont.

The East Londonderry MLA referred to the Minister’s awareness of the “long-running campaign to ensure that Magilligan prison is reconstructed.

“Some colleagues and I met with him several months ago, and he is aware that a predecessor of his - direct rule Minister Paul Goggins - gave specific assurances, as did the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the Westminster House of Commons,” he told the Stormont Assembly.

“Given that recommendations 4 and 6 (of the report) suggest that it would be better to build a new prison near a centre of population - I assumed that we had one called Maghaberry, which is near Belfast - can he assure us that the Magilligan rebuild will begin as soon as possible, regardless of the interim and final reports, and that whatever has to be done to provide a new prison there, in whatever system is needed, will be done as a matter of urgency?” he asked.

But Mr Ford refused to commit to the rebuild stating: “I am unable to give any assurance when the estates review is still under way. The report correctly highlights the fact that there are issues around Magilligan, which has some good accommodation and some poor.

“The report also highlights issues relating to geography. Those matters are being taken on board by the estates review, and I expect to report to the House when that review comes to fruition.”

Formed in February 2010 in the wake of the Hillsborough Agreement the Prison Review was tasked with reviewing the “conditions of detention, management and oversight of all prisons… [and] consideration of a women’s prison which is fit for purpose and meets international obligations and best practice.”

Headed by Dame Anne Owens it published an interim report in February 2011 and its final ‘Review of the Northern Ireland Prison Service Conditions, management and oversight of all prisons’ last October.

Chapter 4 of the report deals with the Prison Estate and in it the team argue that “Magilligan should be either re-sited, reconfigured for long or life-sentenced prisoners, or refurbished: a decision needs to be made and implemented speedily.”

The review also says that “in relation to the majority adult male population, it is clear that there are problems and operational difficulties in relation to the two prisons at Maghaberry and Magilligan.”

HMP Magilligan is, although, identified as “the best-functioning of all three Northern Ireland prisons, at least in part because it has a single task: to hold lower-risk sentenced men who will fairly soon be returning to the community” is disadvantaged by its remote County Londonderry location.

“It does, however, suffer from being in the wrong place for that purpose, in an isolated position on Magilligan Point, far away from most prisoners’ homes or possibilities of employment,” the report states.

“Much of its current accommodation, in H-blocks or temporary structures, is wholly unsuitable. It would be better either to build a new prison near a centre of population, with links to local services, colleges and other support services, or to use the site to hold long- and life-sentenced prisoners who are not close to release and do not need to be close to the courts,” it adds.

Both options would be expensive, however, as was identified over three years ago by Mr Goggins who announced then that a new 800 capacity jail would cost £200m, but at present “the current configuration and accommodation are not suitable for a higher-risk population.”

“Magilligan has suffered from considerable uncertainty about its future, which is demoralising and has caused planning blight in respect of much-needed improvements to the current site.

“The estates strategy should therefore speedily determine its future (or lack of it) and provide a clear and agreed timescale for closing, re-building and re-roling, or refurbishing it,” the report considers.

Meanwhile, apart from the problem of the future of the jail the report says some recently implemented staffing reductions signal progress.

“Visits to the three prisons in July 2011 showed a little progress, but also revealed the scale of change needed,” the report states.

“Magilligan provided the most positive picture. Central detailing had had a positive effect on the regime, and allowed some staffing efficiencies: a reduction in the number of senior officers on the units and the dropping of the circle officer post on the H-blocks.”

There are still too many people employed at Magilligan, however.

“Nevertheless, there remained considerable over-staffing. Staff interacted reasonably well and decently with prisoners, though there was little understanding of how they might assist them not to reoffend,” the report notes.