Prisoner Ombudsman’s Annual Report Released

Published on June 16 2010

The Prisoner Ombudsman, Pauline McCabe today published her office’s Annual Report to the end of March 2010. In the year that saw the devolution of Criminal Justice, her Report shows that the Office has made significant progress. Mrs McCabe, now in post for over 21 months says that the year ahead presents the opportunity to maximise the contribution her Office can make to a fair and impartial Criminal Justice system.

During the year Mrs McCabe devoted considerable time to talking to all the political parties, particularly about putting the Office of Prisoner Ombudsman on to a statutory footing. She says that it was gratifying that the Hillsborough Agreement called for a review of the status of the Office. She says this review must be framed in the new realities of Northern Ireland’s prisons and implemented as a matter of urgency as the lack of independent legal status impacts on the perceived independence of the Office, as well as on its ability to fulfil its Human Rights obligations when carrying out investigations.

Mrs McCabe identified the need for a detailed, sequenced, strategic plan to create a modern prison system and the need for this to be underpinned by a cultural change and a new national employee relationship framework. She believes that such a plan will inform the Departments of Justice and Health and enable them to justify spending against predictable returns on investment.

She says, “Following numerous independent consultations, recommendations and strategies, the Prison Service and the South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust know what changes need to be made. Making those changes happen is the real challenge.” In this context, she welcomes the priority given by the Minister to the forthcoming Prisons Review, which she hopes will deal with this matter once and for all.

Mrs McCabe also says that the fact that industrial relations are at a low ebb does nothing to enhance the status of the Prison Service or the Prison Officers Association and that this must be addressed. She, therefore, welcomes the acceptance of her recent recommendation that discussions with input from one or more external industrial relations experts should commence within weeks.

The Ombudsman also highlighted the increase, from 59% to 71%, of prisoner complaints which were received by the Office but were ineligible for investigation because they had failed to go through the prison internal complaints procedure first. She considers this to be worrying and indicating a reluctance to use the internal process. She expects to see improvements in the figures following a simplification of the complaints system and demonstration that it operates on the basis of a real belief in its value.

She remains firm in her belief that the best outcome from a prison sentence is that the prisoner does not re-offend. She stated her commitment to a regime of purposeful activity, responsive mental health provision and access to drug rehabilitation programmes, all of which are central to a modern prison system.

In her report Mrs McCabe emphasises the priority which has gone into clearing the backlog of Death in Custody Investigations. She says that implementing past recommendations from these Investigations remains an area where improvement is needed. During the year reported, good progress was made, with eight investigations completed, four of them published within the year to March 2010. In recent weeks, a further Investigation has been completed, three more have been published and two are with the Northern Ireland Prison Service for factual accuracy checking. It is hoped that the remaining four investigations will be complete by September, thereby completely clearing the backlog.

Healthcare was a central issue in a number of Death in Custody Investigations completed during the year. Mrs McCabe’s Office liaises constantly with the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust which has assumed responsibility for healthcare in prisons to ensure that her findings and recommendations are helpful in informing the programme of work the Trust is rolling out across the Prison Service.

During the year reported, Mrs McCabe notes that Governor Steve Rodford came to Maghaberry Prison and left within six months. Describing Mr Rodford’s resignation as “regrettable”, she says, “he brought in fresh thinking and different experience which is exactly what is needed to bring about reform.”

The Ombudsman says, “There is general recognition that change is needed across Northern Ireland’s prisons. There is willingness to make this change, but devolution of Criminal Justice will not play its part in creating a modern post-sectarian society if power is transferred but the systems and processes remain the same. I look forward with great hope to the opportunities and possibilities that the next year can bring. The Office of the Prisoner Ombudsman is absolutely committed to working with colleagues to make sure that these possibilities are realised.”

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Annual Report - April 2010 to March 2011
Death in Custody Summary - Allyn Baxter
Death in Custody Report - Allyn Baxter
Death in Custody Summary - John Deery
Death in Custody Report - John Deery