Maghaberry Prison: Drugs

Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 8th March 2011.

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Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 pm, 8th March 2011

4. asked the Minister of Justice if he can confirm that prison authorities recently introduced a drugs amnesty in Maghaberry prison. (AQO 1241/11)

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Recently, the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) was made aware that a quantity of illegal drugs had been smuggled into Maghaberry prison. As a result of using those drugs, one person collapsed and had to be taken to Lagan Valley Hospital to receive medical treatment. It is clear that that bad batch of drugs posed serious risks to prisoners. In such cases, the overriding concern must be for the health and welfare of prisoners. That is why, in order to minimise risk and proactively encourage prisoners to hand over their drugs, the governor of Maghaberry prison alerted prisoners to concerns about the potential harm that those drugs could cause and took the decision to not impose any sanction on any prisoner who handed in illegal drugs within a 48-hour period.

The Prison Service has a duty of care to prisoners, and that action is in line with its policies on safer custody and on reducing the harm of illegal drugs in prisons. Such amnesties are taken in only very exceptional circumstances in which the risk posed is considered very high. However, they are not unique to NIPS and are used from time to time by police and prison services in other jurisdictions. On this occasion, no drugs were handed in to the authorities, although it is possible that they may have been disposed of in other ways.

The Prison Service maintains a tough stance on drugs and will continue to take every measure necessary to reduce the supply of drugs in prisons and, in partnership with the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, to provide a range of interventions and support services to prisoners with addiction problems.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 8th March 2011

I welcome the Minister’s reply. Was that a one-off amnesty? Does the Minister have plans to introduce further amnesties, if he cannot ease the drug situation?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

Mr Bradley raises a fair point. There are no plans for further amnesties, but that does not mean that further amnesties may not happen in the future, if they are felt to be necessary in the interest of the health and safety of prisoners. As I said in my substantive answer, this issue has to be addressed from time to time by prison services and police services in every jurisdiction. It is not a unique feature of Maghaberry or of Northern Ireland, but it is important that we protect the lives of those who are in the custody of the Prison Service.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. As part of a policy for clean health for prisoners in relation to drugs, and in addition to the recent amnesty that was seen in Maghaberry, has the Minister had discussions with the director general of the Prison Service about education programmes and drugs awareness programmes?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

The Member has raised a very interesting question. The simple answer is that I, personally, have not discussed the issue with the director general. I understand that it is an issue that is continually considered by the Prison Service, but, in light of what has been said, it is, perhaps, an issue that we need to prioritise.

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

Will the Minister address another issue that is occurring in Maghaberry and other prisons? Some prisoners are faking incidents. They get themselves taken into hospital at taxpayers’ expense, get themselves treated with legitimate drugs, then overdose on those legitimate drugs and cause even greater expense to the public purse?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I have no evidence of any occurrences of the sort that has been suggested by Mr Craig. In the case of the recent incident that we talked about, I understand that only one prisoner was taken to Lagan Valley Hospital and that prisoner received only outpatient treatment there.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

Has the Minister assessed the impact of the drugs amnesty in the prison on prison staff morale? To what extent was the amnesty made necessary by the problems associated with supervising visitors?

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I am not aware that staff morale was affected by the one-off, short-term amnesty. As I said, amnesties are held in prison services in every jurisdiction, and to suggest that the problem is unique to or particularly felt in Maghaberry is flying in the face of reality.