Prisoner Ombudsmans Annual Report 2017-2018

Published on September 25 2018

The Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has today published his 2017-18 annual report.

The report provides an account of the work of the Office of the Prisoner Ombudsman in dealing with deaths in custody and prisoner complaints.

During reporting period April 2017-March 2018 the Prisoner Ombudsman commenced investigations into three deaths in custody. One involved a prisoner at Magilligan and two involved Maghaberry prisoners. Regrettably two of the deaths appeared to be self-inflicted while the third person appeared to die from natural causes.

The deaths occurred in May, August and September of 2017. Follow-up activity by the South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust (SEHSCT) and the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) to support other prisoners and staff was prompt and appropriate.

In total nine recommendations for improvement were made in the published reports of the investigations into two of the deaths in custody, all of these were accepted by the Trust and the Prison Service.

In relation to prisoners’ complaints, 134 recommendations for improvement were made and 76% of these had been accepted by the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

The number of complaints from prisoners more than halved in the past year. Overall 1,953 complaints were received from prisoners, a 55% decrease on last year. However all but 167 of these complaints were from separated prisoners on Roe 3 and 4 landings at Maghaberry prison.

The 167 complaints from integrated prisoners was commensurate with a lower prison population and may also be partially explained by a more stable regime in Maghaberry and improvement in complaints-handling there during the reporting period.

Commenting on the report Brendan McGuigan the Interim Prisoner Ombudsman said:

“The independent investigation of complaints by the Office of the Prisoner Ombudsman can help instil in prisoners, greater confidence that their welfare is treated seriously. It can also help reduce tension and promote better relations. My staff are dedicated to the impartial and independent investigation of prisoner complaints and I would like to acknowledge the contribution of everyone in my office and the continued cooperation received from the agencies with whom we work.”

Mr McGuigan expressed disappointment that the process for placing the Prisoner Ombudsman’s office on a statutory footing, while it had progressed through the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Justice (No 2) Bill had received royal assent in May 2016, the underpinning Regulations could not be completed before dissolution of the Assembly on 26th January 2017.

Mr McGuigan also referred to the absence of a Justice Minister and the consequential impact of the process of appointing a successor to the previous Prisoner Ombudsman, Tom McGonigle, who retired from post on 31 August 2017. He confirmed his commitment to continue to oversee the Ombudsman’s Office so that the important work of the Ombudsman’s Office could continue until such an appointment is made.

Mr McGuigan noted that while there were significant changes of personnel during the year the investigative capacity of the Office remained stable throughout and by March 2017 the team was at full strength with only the post of the Prisoner Ombudsman remaining vacant.

Notes to editors:

  • The primary role of the prisoner ombudsman is to investigate deaths in custody. The office will also investigate some post custody deaths, cases defined as a “near death in custody” and prisoner complaints.

  • The Northern Ireland Prisoner Ombudsman’s Office was established in 2005 and is in the process of being placed on a statutory footing through the Justice Act (NI) 2016. Legislation for this within the Fines and Enforcements Bill has been delayed due to the suspension of the Assembly. Statutory footing will increase the independence of the Office of the Prisoner Ombudsman and grant it more power in terms of gaining access to confidential documents central to the Office’s investigations.

  • The Ombudsman aims to provide the facts of the case and publish all material that is necessary to serve the public interest. This is balanced against legal obligations in respect of privacy for everyone concerned, the views of the family of the deceased in relation to disclosure of the identity of the deceased, and all matters of privacy protected in law. Where appropriate death in Custody reports will be anonymised and properly redacted.

  • Separated prisoners held on Roe 4 landing at Maghaberry Prison comprised less than 2% of the total prison population, however they account for almost 90% of the complaints received by the Office. These are in the form of multiple identical complaints and many related to procedural matters. These prisoners’ main concerns involve controlled movement, full body searching and refusal of permission for a small number of other prisoners to join them on Roe 4.

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