9 February 2006 Edition
Prison deaths expose serious failures in system
BY LAURA FRIEL
Suicides and self harm - Vulnerable people should not be jailed
Vulnerable people convicted of minor offences should not be jailed, says Sinn Féin's spokesperson on Human Rights and Equality Caitríona Ruane, following an announcement by British Minister Shaun Woodward that responsibility for prisoner health care is being transferred from the Six-County Prison Service to the Department of Health.
The announcement follows a report commissioned by the Prison Service and Chief Medical Officer, prompted by increasing rates of suicide and self-harm amongst prisoners in Maghaberry Jail over a two-year period. The report highlighted serious inadequacies of care in the prison system.
While Sinn Féin has welcomed the transfer of responsibility, the party pointed out that rising incidents of self-harm and suicide within jails cannot be understood simply by reference to inadequate levels of care provided.
"The tragic deaths of six people between 2002 and 2004 exposed many serious failures within the prison system. The response to those at risk from self-harm and suicide was very poor and only served to exasperate the risk," said Caitríona Ruane.
"It is important that any gaps in providing support for prisoners with a broad range of mental ill health issues is closed. We now need to see action," she said.
But a better system of care for prisoners to tackle increasing self-harm and suicide rates within jails in the North only addresses part of the problem. The inappropriate imposition of custodial sentencing on identifiably vulnerable people with relatively minor convictions brings into question the wider operation of the entire criminal justice system.
"There are also wider issues in relation to the criminal justice system and mental health and well being and sentencing policy. In specific cases there is evidence to suggest that people at risk should not have been handed down a prison sentence in the first place," said Ruane.
This is particularly evident in relation to many women prisoners. "There is evidence to suggest that the Criminal Justice System deals unusually harshly with women, and some other groups, imposing custodial sentences in cases where it is unnecessary and inappropriate. A jail sentence can be particularly disastrous where those in question are already suffering from psychological problems," said Ruane.
The Sinn Féin MLA pointed out that following deaths by suicide in Maghaberry Prison the British Government ignored the recommendations of its own Prison Inspectorate, transferring women to an even more unsuitable prison, Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre.
"Since then there have been a number of reports into the Prison Service. It is vital that recommendations from these as well as this latest report are acted upon.
"When I visited female prisoners in Hydebank last year to inspect their conditions I was shocked and saddened that many of the women and girls were being held in worse conditions than in Maghaberry, with no in-cell sanitation being a key concern and the fact that the majority of prison staff were male," said Ruane.
"The attitude and ethos of the current prison regime can be rigid and overbearing towards women prisoners and most of all there was a sense of despair among many that their plight was being ignored by those in positions of authority. Health and particularly mental health needs are not being met within the prison system."