Prison conditions 'disturbing'

The research was carried out at Maghaberry Prison

The treatment of woman prisoners in Northern Ireland has come under fierce criticism from the Human Rights Commission.

It said it had uncovered human rights abuses at Mourne House in Maghaberry where the regime was studied between March and June.

In a report published on Tuesday, it talked of a woman dying in her cell, two suicide attempts and a girl held in isolation in a cell with no mattress and a potty for a toilet.

However, the Prison Service said conditions at a new facility in Belfast, to which the women have now been moved, offered inmates a better environment.

Entitled The Hurt Inside, the report claimed a series of "significant and disturbing events" took place at Mourne House.

The women have now been moved to a facility in Belfast

It said the regime neglected the needs of female prisoners, lacked constructive programmes to assist their development, compromised their physical and mental health and failed to meet minimum standards of a "duty of care".

It said it found a regime in which women were regularly locked in cells for 17 hours a day, workshops were permanently closed and education classes rarely held.

Chief Commissioner Brice Dickson said it had "grave concerns" about the treatment of women in prisons.

"The Prisons Inspectorate has already produced a highly critical report of the regime in Mourne House, based on its 2002 inspection of Maghaberry," he said.

"Since that inspection, two women have died in custody and our research shows that rather than responding to the Chief Inspector's criticisms, the Prison Service has allowed the regime to deteriorate even further."

Professor Dickson said the commission hoped appropriate action would be taken to change conditions.

One of the report's authors, Dr Linda Moore, an investigation worker with NI Human Rights Commission, said: "What we found was a situation which we have described as institutional neglect."

She highlighted concerns about the lack of mental health services for women in custody, many of whom suffer from depression and other mental illnesses.

Dr Moore accused the prison service of not showing a duty of care to these women.

She said the Human Rights Commission's representatives had been refused access to the women's new prison at Hydebank.

She said that the explanation given by the prison authorities was that the move had proved unsettling for the women and that they wanted to be left in peace.

But she said that this was a low key report conducted by a few people and that the women were not being forced to talk to them.

The report's co-author Professor Phil Scraton said they had found "systematic abuses of human rights".

"Our detailed report raises a range of serious concerns regarding the stagnation of the regime and details the circumstances and events surrounding the deaths of three women," he said.

"We consider that the move from Mourne House to Hydebank Wood male Young Offenders' Centre fails to meet even the basic conditions required by the inspectorate and women find themselves re-located from one male regime to another."

Prison chief's response

The Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, Peter Russell, said he would be studying the 42 recommendations in the report.

"All was not right in Mourne House and that is why I established an inquiry to investigate allegations of inappropriate behaviour there earlier this year. I am expecting that report shortly," he said.

However, he said he disputed the commission's doubts about the ability of the service to deliver a suitable regime at Hydebank Wood.

"I firmly believe that female prisoners have particular needs and that by transferring them to Hydebank Wood we are able to offer a more stimulating regime for women in custody in a less oppressive environment," he said.

"Our feasibility study was carried out by prisons professionals, and we consulted a wide spectrum of opinion.

"Female prisoners transferred to Hydebank in June of this year and preliminary indications are that both the regime and environment are a substantial improvement to that offered in Maghaberry."

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