Greater ambition needed to reduce regime restrictions at Magilligan Prison


Leadership and staff at Magilligan Prison have been commended for their efforts to successfully protect prisoners and colleagues during the COVID-19 pandemic while maintaining a regime where time out of cell for prisoners was retained for much of the day.

Inspectors from Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons in England and Wales (HMIP) praised the approach in a new inspection report published today (28 February 2022).

“The arrangement adopted at Magilligan to keep prisoners unlocked for much of the day during the pandemic supported prisoner wellbeing and had, to a great extent, been respected by prisoners. This early and brave decision was in marked contrast to the approach adopted in England and Wales, which saw prisoners spending long periods locked in their cells,” said Jacqui Durkin, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland and Charlie Taylor, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales.

“When Inspectors from CJI and HMIP undertook the inspection in partnership with colleagues from the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) and the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) in May and June 2021, Magilligan was beginning to emerge from the pandemic restrictions at that time,” said Ms Durkin.

“Access to the regime was restricted and opportunities for prisoners to participate in meaningful purposeful activity including learning and skills development, with individuals or in small groups in a safe environment, were not being realised.  

“We urge leadership and staff at Magilligan to show greater ambition in their approach to pandemic recovery, by increasing the pace of regime recovery when they can, responsive to phases of the pandemic while continuing to be mindful of the need to maintain a safe environment,” she said. 

The Chief Inspector said voluntary and community sector partners, education and other service providers needed to be encouraged to safely return to Magilligan and re-engage in delivering learning opportunities and other services to prisoners.   

Reporting on Magilligan’s performance against the four ‘healthy prison’ tests, Mr Taylor said outcomes for prisoners remained the same in relation to ‘safety’ but had declined in relation to ‘respect’, ‘purposeful activity’, and ‘rehabilitation and release planning’ when compared to the last inspection in 2017.  

He acknowledged limitations linked to the COVID-19 pandemic had contributed to the assessed outcome levels.  The Chief Inspectors encouraged prison leaders to focus on improvement by addressing the two key concerns highlighted in the report and implementing the 30 Inspection recommendations.

“The use of illegal drugs and diverted prescription medication was a key area of concern for Inspectors.  Half of all prisoners who responded to our prisoner survey said they had a drug problem before arriving at Magilligan and almost one third said they had developed a problem with drugs or medication not prescribed to them while there.  Both figures had increased substantially since 2017,” said Mr Taylor.  

Despite the efforts of the security team who were focused on reducing the supply of illegal substances entering the prison and their associated risks, random mandatory drug testing data showed an average higher rate of positive tests than at most similar prisons.

“Although a drug and alcohol strategy and associated action plan were now in place, they were not yet effective in addressing the supply of illicit drugs within the prison.  Inspectors recommend the drug strategy action plan should be up to date, widely communicated and closely tracked to reduce the supply and demand for drugs and alcohol at Magilligan,” said Ms Durkin.

The Chief Inspectors indicated governance arrangements for in-possession prescription medication also required attention to reduce the risk of medicines being diverted away from the person they were intended for and were aware the RQIA and South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust were continuing to work together on improvements.

RQIA Inspectors also identified the standard of cleanliness in communal areas and cleaning practice and lack of ongoing maintenance in some residential units presented serious potential health risks that needed to be addressed by effective monitoring and maintenance of cleanliness and hygienic practice.

Ms Durkin said there was a focus on prisoner wellbeing within the prison and that relationships between prisoners and staff were generally good.  Inspectors found most staff had a good knowledge of the prisoners in their care with some staff found to be particularly impressive, especially with those prisoners with specific needs.

Inspectors also noted improvements in the operation of the Care and Supervision Unit at Magilligan since the on-site fieldwork for the recently published review report into the operation of Care and Supervision Units. The Governor had responded to feedback on the limited use of the innovative sensory garden that was now being utilised more frequently.

Work by the then new Governor to implement a more robust complaints procedure to address weaknesses identified following a review of the prisoner complaints process, was also welcomed by the Inspection Team.

“Although this inspection was carried out at a time of significant transition, Inspectors identified six areas of notable positive practice at Magilligan that other prisons could learn from,” said Ms Durkin.  

“These included a pilot scheme where prisoners were able to use video technology to virtually support their children in completing their homework, and the culture of care driven by the Prison Safety and Support Team and supported by informed managers, utilising the computerised Supporting People At Risk Evolution (SPAR Evo) system, to deliver effective care to the most vulnerable prisoners at Magilligan.

“The provision of integrated social care packages to prisoners with severe needs was an excellent and innovative example of joint working across several departments and included the involvement of prisoners,” said the Chief Inspector.