Outcry over move for women prisoners
18/06/2004 - 10:00:08

The Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Human Rights Commission were at loggerheads today over where women prisoners should be housed.

The Prison Service has decided to move women out of the top-security Maghaberry Prison in Co Antrim and rehouse them in a young offenders’ centre outside Belfast.

But the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission today urged them to abandon the idea of moving the women out of Mourne House at Maghaberry into the Hydebank Young Offenders’ Centre.

The commission said it had “grave concerns” about the decision.

Chief Commissioner Brice Dickson said that academic research and international standards recognised women’s experiences in prison were significantly different from those of men.

“It is therefore expected that regimes for women should be distinctive and discrete. The facilities being prepared for women in Hydebank do not meet these standards,” he said.

The commission understood that not only would the female unit be very near the male units, but there would also be shared visiting facilities and no separate health care centre for women, he said.

“International standards and the Prisons Inspectorate’s expectations will not be complied with in this situation,” he added.

The commission published a report of an inspection of Maghaberry carried out on its behalf and one of authors, Professor Phil Scraton of the Queen’s University of Belfast, said no convincing case had been made for the transfer of the women to the YOC.

“The Northern Ireland Prison Service has failed to provide the necessary safeguards for women prisoners in a male prison in the Mourne House context and has not demonstrated that it can meet them at Hydebank.”

He said while a reduction in security levels for women prisoners in Northern Ireland was long overdue, the designated house at the YOC was adjacent to a house accommodating young men.

“There are profound implications in this decision for the women and girls and also for the boys and young men. We anticipate that women will face intimidation and harassment in this context,” said Prof Scraton.

But the Prison Service said it had carried out a full public consultation exercise on the proposed move of female prisoners to Hydebank.

“Anyone and everyone, including the Human Rights Commission, could have submitted their views before any final decision was taken.

“The commission did not offer a response,” said a statement.

It said they welcomed the commission report recognised the inadequacies of the current regime for women at Maghaberry, but “strongly disputed” the assertion it would be unable to deliver a suitable regime at the YOC.

The decision to move the women had been taken after a feasibility study by prison professionals.

“We are confident of our ability to deliver a suitable regime and are prepared to be judged by our results,” it said.

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