NI: Sugden announces ‘community response’ to deaths in prison

Justice Minister Claire Sugden
Justice Minister Claire Sugden

Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister Claire Sugden has announced plans to bring a “community response” approach to Northern Ireland prisons following recent deaths in custody.

There have been five deaths in custody in Northern Ireland since November 2015, with four relating to mental health issues.

Of the 1,533 prisoners in Northern Ireland on 17 November 2016, 417 (27 per cent) were recorded as having a mental illness and a further 740 (49 per cent) were recorded as having an addiction.

Speaking to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Ms Sugden said: “Every death in custody is a tragedy. It is a tragedy for bereaved family and friends. It greatly affects prison staff, particularly those officers who have worked with these vulnerable people and have come to know them. It is also a tragedy for other inmates who are affected, too.

“As Justice Minister, I take extremely seriously the responsibility that is placed on me to care for every individual in custody in Northern Ireland.

“It is a very sad fact that the prison population includes groups of highly vulnerable people and, for some, the confinement regime itself presents a significant burden on their mental health.”

She told MLAs a meeting had taken place on Friday to develop a “community response plan”, following “the same model that is adopted when there are potential clusters of suicide in the community”.

Ms Sugden added: “The aim of using that approach is to detect a potential suicide cluster and thereby prevent further deaths by suicide.

“Full investigations into the circumstances of the recent deaths at Maghaberry are ongoing. Whilst it would be wrong to pre-empt the findings of the Prisoner Ombudsman or a coroner’s inquest, I believe that it is crucial to act immediately.

“I also believe this is the first time that this model, which has been used successfully in the community, has been adopted in a prison in Northern Ireland.

“The objectives of the work are to identify and support those potentially at risk through timely and coordinated support from all sectors; to coordinate local and additional resources through the response period; and to monitor and evaluate the response put in place.”

Ms Sugden also said Health Minister Michelle O’Neill had agreed to work with her on “an immediate review of vulnerable people in custody”.

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