PRISON authorities are not doing enough to protect prisoners from violent bullying and intimidation by fellow inmates inside the North’s high-security jail, inspectors have found.
Maghaberry Prison does not provide a sufficiently safe environment for the almost 1,000 men held in the Co Antrim facility, according to the Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI).
Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland, Brendan McGuigan, said drugs were often the cause of violent incidents.
"It's clear to us that people on prescription medication are being bullied to hand over the medication and that then creates the opportunities for a black market to operate within the prison," he said.
The announced CJI inspection was the first since Maghaberry was deemed a failing prison in a heavily critical assessment by inspectors in 2009.
The exercise in March this year found areas of progress - and noted some improvement in prisoner safety - but said "significant weaknesses" remained.
"There's more work that needs to be done in relation to the safety of prisoners and there is a need to tackle bullying and incidents of violence that do occur," said Mr McGuigan.
The chief inspector said the issue was not down to staffing resources but how prison officers interacted with inmates, claiming there was not enough effort to get closer to prisoners and monitor problematic issues as they developed.
"The inspection team found that, despite high staffing levels, association and exercise areas were not adequately supervised and concerns remain that Maghaberry does not provide a sufficiently safe environment for prisoners held there," said Mr McGuigan.
He said the team of inspectors also found that prison staff did not show prisoners sufficient respect.
Among other findings, the inspection report said there had been no progress to address the long-standing issue of disparity in treatment between Catholic and Protestant prisoners, with Catholics not faring as well.
The unequal outcomes primarily related to the granting of benefits or application of sanctions where staff had a measure of discretion.
The chief inspector said the problem was complex and needed further analysis to establish if actual discrimination was a factor.
This equality issue has been identified in all the North’s prisons since the CJI began its inspection work in 2004.
"Maghaberry's own statistics have confirmed that in terms of equality there were still unequal outcomes for Catholic prisoners in several important areas," said Mr McGuigan.
"Yet this sensitive issue was not being addressed and we have recommended the Northern Ireland Prison Service to take action to deliver equality of outcomes for all prisoners."
He added: "It's been a feature of prison inspections since we started them in 2004."
Mr McGuigan found that outcomes were also not good for older, disabled and foreign national prisoners.
While the damning 2009 inspection made 200 recommendations, the latest report makes 93, six of which are considered as main ones.
The CJI's assessment of the health of a prison uses four main criteria - safety, respect, purposeful activity and resettlement.
In the 2009 inspection, Maghaberry received the worst rating (out of four possible) in two of those categories, with the other two rated just marginally better as "not sufficiently good".
The 2012 inspection saw improvements by one level in three categories, with one remaining static.
Safety, respect and purposeful activity were rated as not being sufficiently good, while the resettlement strategy was found to be "reasonably good".
Mr McGuigan said some progress had been made.
He highlighted the introduction of mandatory drug testing; the opening of the Donard Day Centre for vulnerable prisoners; investment in a new Learning and Skills Centre; and work to prepare inmates for resettlement as examples of good practice.
However, he noted that the regime inside Maghaberry meant that many prisoners were not able to access certain services for extended periods due to the amount of time they were locked in their cells - many for up to 20 hours a day.
The chief inspector also criticised the management of offenders with drug and alcohol problems.
The inspection took place during the dirty protest in the wing occupied by dissident republican prisoners.
Mr McGuigan noted the challenge this presented staff at the time.
He said the inspection had identified "green shoots" of prison reform but there was "a lot more work to do".
"This inspection found signs of real improvement which are welcome, but the prison still has a long way to go," he said.
"It does not yet provide a sufficient level of safety and respectful treatment, with too many prisoners having insufficient purposeful activity during their time there.
"The progress made to date needs to be increased and inspectors would encourage the Northern Ireland Prison Service to embed these improvements in the culture and processes at Maghaberry Prison so that the progress that has been made is built on further."
The prison was inspected by a multi-disciplinary team of inspectors from CJI, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) and the Education and Training Inspectorate.