Review of the Provision of Services for Vulnerable Persons Detained in NI Prisons

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 13th September 2021.

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Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 2:45 pm, 13th September 2021

2. Mr McAleer asked the Minister of Justice for an update on the review of the provision of services for vulnerable persons detained in NI prisons. (AQO 2381/17-22)

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Mr Speaker, before I answer the question, I will take this opportunity, on behalf of the Assembly, to express sympathy to the family of the prison officer who sadly passed away on 19 August following a short battle with COVID-19. He was known personally to a number of Members, and it is right that we pay tribute to him for his work in the prison and, in particular, for the work that he did in support of staff, past and present.

Turning to the question, I understand that the report of the review of vulnerable people in custody is due to be published by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) during the week commencing 20 September 2021. Pending the outcome of that review, the Prison Service has been working closely with the South Eastern Trust, our healthcare provider, and has made significant progress in improving support to people who are at risk. For example, we have delivered a joint suicide and self-harm risk management strategy and a joint management of substance misuse in custody strategy. A review of our supporting prisoners at risk procedures has resulted in the delivery of a new person-centred approach that aims to support someone through a period of crisis or distress, as well as addressing the root cause of the issue. Well-being hubs in each of our establishments provide a therapeutic environment for people in our care who need the support of the trust's mental health teams, and specific therapeutic spaces in each of our establishments provide multidisciplinary support to people at risk. I look forward to receiving the RQIA report, which I will, of course, consider carefully.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her response. She has pre-empted my next question, which was on when the report is likely to be published. The Minister stated September 2021, which is five years since it was commissioned. Can she give a commitment that it will be published in September?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It is not a commitment that I can make on behalf of the RQIA, but it is my understanding that the report will be completed on 20 September and published directly by the RQIA during that week. I ask Members to keep their eyes peeled, because I hope that the RQIA will be able to meet that target.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

First, I thank the Minister for her timely remarks about a former colleague of mine. He was an officer who worked diligently, right up to this point, with many MLAs.

The Minister will know that prison operations, including the provision of services for vulnerable prisoners, are impacted by staffing levels, and there are growing concerns about staffing levels in Maghaberry, in particular. Is the Minister aware of those concerns, and what action will she take to address them?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

We are aware that the arrangements that we put in place in our prison system, particularly to deal with COVID-19, have come under pressure at various points in the system, either through levels of illness in the Prison Service and the numbers isolating or, indeed, through the peaks and troughs of people being brought into the system. <BR/>The director general of the Prison Service and I monitor that on an ongoing basis. Where there are any concerns about the level of complement, they are, obviously, addressed. At this stage, the director general and his management team have not communicated significant concerns to me about the available complement in the prison system, and they certainly have not communicated to me that it would give them concern for the safety either of prison officers or, indeed, prisoners.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

The Minister will be aware that a review of the operation of community safety units was conducted this year. Will she give us an update on when the report for that will be published?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The publication of the report is a matter for Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI), which undertook that review at my request. I understand that the review is well under way. The practical element of it, in terms of attendance at the prison, has been completed, and it is now a matter of the recommendations being formulated. I will, of course, keep the Chamber apprised of when that report arrives on my desk.