Inspectors 'encouraged' by performance improvement at Hydebank Wood and Ash House women's prison
Inspectors have commended the Northern Ireland Prison Service for delivering ‘significant improvements in outcomes’ for young men and women prisoners held in two of Northern Ireland's prison facilities.
The independent, unannounced inspections of Hydebank Wood Secure College and Ash House, Northern Ireland's women's prison were conducted in May 2016 by a multi-disciplinary team of inspectors from Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority and Education and Training Inspectorate.
"When Inspectors visited Hydebank Wood Secure College and Ash House they found a major shift had occurred in the ethos of the facilities," said Brendan McGuigan, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland and Peter Clarke, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales.
"In contrast with the concerning findings highlighted in 2013, Inspectors found there was a clear focus on providing enhanced educational and learning opportunities on the site. This vision centered on helping both young men and women prisoners break the cycle of reoffending and offering assistance in the process of rehabilitation to help offenders live a more purposeful, law-abiding life on release," said the Chief Inspectors.
Inspectors found performance at Hydebank Wood Secure College and Ash House had improved or been maintained against the four internationally recognised 'healthy prison' tests of 'safety', 'respect', 'purposeful activity' and 'resettlement' compared to 2013.
“Relationships between staff and prisoners had moved on considerably since our last inspection. Engagement was found to be consistently positive and in some cases was outstanding, with most staff adopting a caring, supportive approach and an interest in the welfare of young men and women in their care,” said Mr McGuigan.
“Time out of cell was good and nearly everyone had meaningful purposeful activity. Learning and skills provision had progressed considerably as a result of the developing relationship with Belfast Met and a broader, better quality curriculum was now on offer within the Secure College.
"While further work was required to increase the range of accredited qualifications and opportunities for higher levels of achievement, prison management had sensibly extended these opportunities to include the women held in Ash House,” said Mr Clarke.
Gaining access to this provision has meant women need to move more freely around the Hydebank Wood campus. While this is not without risks, managers have sought to take steps to manage this movement and Inspectors would encourage them to keep these risks under constant review.
The Chief Inspectors also welcomed the innovative approach of the Prison Service leadership and local management at Hydebank Wood in partnering with community and third sector organisations to support work around learning, skills and resettlement.
Significant concerns however remained around the availability of illicit drugs and new psychoactive substances, which mimic the effects of illegal drugs, which are difficult to detect and can have unpredictable and life-threatening effects, within both facilities.
“During the inspection we heard from both young men and women prisoners about the greater availability of illicit drugs which, when combined with a concentration of prisoners presenting with challenging behaviour, was resulting in bullying and intimidation,” said Mr McGuigan.
“We remain concerned that work to address the availability of drugs continues to be under-developed. This is something which should be prioritised alongside violence reduction work, to ensure the young men and women held within the Hydebank Wood complex are kept safe, the challenges faced are better understood and the positive work currently ongoing is not undermined," continued the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.
In addition Mr Clarke indicated that work to tackle mental health issues and drug and alcohol dependency needed to be improved.
"Over half of the young men we spoke to in Hydebank Wood Secure College reported having mental health difficulties and around double the number of young men indicated they had drug of alcohol dependency issues compared to England and Wales," said the Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales.
"Within Ash House many of the women reported experiencing mental health issues, high levels of self-harming behaviour and backgrounds of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse. We were concerned that given the problems with the female prison population and the high level of young men reporting mental health issues, mental health provision needed to be much better. In some cases, their needs would be best met within a mental health or hospital setting, rather than within the Hydebank Wood site.
"We have also recommended that in relation to both facilities, a more strategic, multi-disciplinary approach to substance misuse dependency is needed. This strategy should be informed by a needs assessment of the population and result in an action plan that ensures those dependent on drugs and alcohol have prompt access to specialist support, including those that address links to offending behaviour," Mr Clarke said.
In conclusion Mr McGuigan said: “Overall these were two encouraging inspections. While the mixing of young men and women on the Hydebank Wood site will continue to present challenges until a new dedicated women’s prison for Northern Ireland is established, the improvements made at the Hydebank Wood campus have the potential to meaningfully improve outcomes and transform the experience of the young men and women held there.
"We commend both prison leadership and local managers for the innovation, creativity and determination shown to foster a culture of improvement and create two institutions with a greater rehabilitative ethos.
"The changes which have taken place show what can be achieved within and by the Northern Ireland Prison Service when prison reform is embraced. We would urge all responsible for the continued development of the Hydebank Wood campus to ensure this positive momentum is maintained so these institutions can move on to the next level," said Mr McGuigan.