The Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland today published his 2014-15 annual report.

Published on June 23 2015

The role of the Prisoner Ombudsman is to investigate and report on deaths in custody and prisoners’ complaints. During 2014-15 the Office commenced investigations into three deaths. There were 1,429 eligible complaints received, triple the 2013-14 figure.

97% of the complaints came from prisoners in Maghaberry, predominantly from separated 
Republicans. Eligible complaints from other prisoners reduced to 276 from 380.  While there 
was a significant drop in the prison population - 800 fewer committals - since the previous 
year, a lack of capacity in Maghaberry’s internal complaints system appears to be the main 
reason for this reduction. 

The Ombudsman commended several initiatives undertaken as part of the Prison Service’s 
reform programme. These included cessation of automatically handcuffing prisoners during 
transportation, fewer prisoners being accommodated in Maghaberry’s older houses and 
increased finds of illicit drugs. It was also positive that Hydebank Wood Young Offenders 
Centre, Ash House Women’s Prison and Magilligan Prison were able to deliver regimes that 
were reasonably predictable and constructive. 

However he expressed serious concern about high levels of staff unavailability at Maghaberry 
Prison. The consequences included unpredictable and restricted regimes, long periods of 
cellular confinement and limited purposeful activity, all of which heightened tensions and 
increased frustration and vulnerability levels among prisoners.  

In November 2014 the Ombudsman wrote to the Minister of Justice and the Minister of 
Health to express concern about the need to repeat recommendations that had previously 
been accepted in death in custody reports.  Both Ministers replied in positive terms, as did 
the Prison Service and the South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust. 

All of the Ombudsman’s recommendations in relation to deaths in custody and 83% of 
recommendations in relation to complaints had been accepted at the time of writing.  

Tom McGonigle’s report also highlighted important future developments, including plans to 
place his Office on a statutory footing and the likely impact of budget cuts. However, while 
warning against complacency elsewhere, his main emphasis was on Maghaberry Prison. He 
concluded “It is imperative that the NIPS take urgent remedial action at Maghaberry as the 
impact of staff shortages risks destabilising the prison and is fundamentally at odds with the 
reform agenda.” 

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