Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 22nd March 2022.
6. Mr Boylan asked the Minister of Justice for her assessment of the Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJINI) ‘Report on an Unannounced Inspection of Magilligan Prison’. (AQO 3322/17-22)
It was vital that the independent scrutiny of the criminal justice system continued during the pandemic, despite the challenges that that presented to inspection teams. I welcome the recent report from the Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice following an unannounced inspection of Magilligan prison during May and June 2021. The report recognised and commended the efforts of the leadership team and staff in response to COVID-19, acknowledging that, while other jurisdictions locked their prisoners up, we continued to deliver healthy out-of-cell regimes for people in our care.
The report correctly recognised that the pandemic constrained some of the valuable work that is normally delivered at Magilligan, particularly around purposeful activity. The Prison Service is clear in its determination to recover and refocus on supporting and challenging prisoners to rehabilitate and resettle in the community. Balancing recovery against the risk that COVID will continue to be present is at the forefront of the daily work being led by the director general.
The Magilligan report identified significant areas of innovative good practice and, like every report, contains learning and recommendations that will help to drive improvement. The governor and his team are working to address the findings.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a freagra. I thank the Minister for her answer. The recent Criminal Justice Inspection report identified the use of illegal drugs and diverted prescription medication in prison as a key area of concern. When will body scanners be introduced in prisons in the North to prevent the smuggling of drugs? Can she introduce any other measures to prevent that?
During the inspection, 150 prisoner surveys were completed. Some 46 individuals indicated that they had developed a drug problem since their arrival in custody, which is, of course, of concern. The same survey highlights the fact that half of the respondents said that they had a drug problem before arriving at the establishment. Drug testing during that period showed that the majority of failures — 98% — were for illicit use of prescription medication rather than for drugs that had been trafficked into the prison.
Magilligan is committed to disrupting supply, reducing demand and promoting the principles of recovery for people in custody. That work will include action to address recommendations made by CJINI in its inspection report. We also have to work closely with the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust and other key partners on limiting access to other medication and the diversion of prescription medication to people who ought not to have access to it. That will require us to work closely together.
A huge amount of work goes on in prisons to prevent illicit drugs coming in, but body scanners would add to the options available to us for that. We hope that body scanners will be made available, and a business case is in process. Everything is budget-dependent, however, and, unfortunately, the Department of Justice draft budget would not allow us to do that as quickly as I would like.
The report identified areas of innovative work, to which the Minister referred, that resulted in particularly good practice, including:
"care driven by the Prison Safety and Support Team" and the work of:
"Family Support Officers ... in partnership ... to sustain and promote family contact".
Will the Minister take the opportunity of her final Question Time to thank our prison and associated staff, who do an extremely difficult and challenging job despite what has happened to them over the pay offer, for the work that they do and to wish them well in trying to stop the drugs that, sadly, come in to our prisons?
It is my pleasure to do so. I have found people who work in our prisons to be some of the most innovative and creative people whom I have come across in the justice system. Their job is not easy. It is a challenging and often dangerous environment, and it can be incredibly volatile, yet they go to work every day, and they look after prisoners in their care. They do so with dignity and respect, and they ensure that those prisoners have access to contact, safely, with their families and to those who can help them with their rehabilitation and their medical and spiritual needs.
Being a prison officer is not an easy job, but it is a worthwhile one, and it adds to the safety of our communities. I pay tribute to all those who work in the Prison Service for the work that they do. During my time as Justice Minister, I have seen people who left prison rehabilitated, re-entered the community and have not reoffended. That is a tribute to those who diligently and tirelessly work with them throughout their time in prison to help them to rebuild their lives.
It is such important work, because, by rehabilitating people properly and ensuring rehabilitation, we ensure that there are fewer victims and that those who were previously involved in crime can build a better future for themselves and their families. For me, it is one of the most worthwhile things that anybody could do as a career.
Does the Minister agree that we need to do all that we can to improve opportunities for prisoners to experience more face-to-face learning, which is vital for their future prospects as they re-enter society?
Absolutely. We work in the Prison Service to ensure that people leave prison with recognised formal qualifications so that they are able to enter the job market on a par with other people and compete for jobs in a much fairer way.
That has been enhanced hugely by our cooperation with the further education colleges that deliver lectures. It has undoubtedly been disrupted by COVID, but I am glad to see that the prisons are now more open and that people can go into the prisons to provide education and support. Hopefully, we will see that extend, but we also have the benefit of having virtual systems in place. Some things that were previously off limits to prisoners and that they could not study will now be available to them in a virtual setting. The combination of the two will enhance greatly the education offer that we have available.