Drugs find prisoners 'must be denied physical contact'

Maghaberry Prison There were 568 drug seizures in the high security Maghaberry prison

The chairman of the Stormont justice committee has called for prisoners caught with illicit drugs to be denied physical contact with visitors.

Paul Givan said visits should be conducted through perspex to reduce the risk of drugs being smuggled in.

He made the call after it was revealed there were more than 1,000 drug finds in prisons during the past three years.

Justice minister David Ford revealed, in a written answer, there were 1,061 finds from July 2009 to August 2012.

During that time, there were 245 drug finds at Magilligan prison near Limavady, 348 at Hybebank Wood women's prison and young offenders centre in south Belfast, and 568 seizures in Northern Ireland's high security prison at Maghaberry near Lisburn.

"It is a shocking situation," Mr Givan says. "A shocking indictment on a system that is failing in terms of drugs that are getting in to our prisons, and prescription drugs that are circulating in our prisons, and radical action is needed."

The drugs found included heroin tablets and powder, cocaine and cannabis, as well as stockpiles of prescription drugs.

'Segregated'

Paul Givan says radical action is needed. He wants prison officers to be allowed to conduct more searches, and for tougher action to be taken against prisoners found in possession of illicit drugs, or stockpiles of prescription medicines.

He said this should include a ban on physical contact during visits as this is often the occasion when drugs are smuggled into prisons.

"If a prisoner is found to have drugs in their position, or to be dealing in drugs, they should be prevented from having that physical contact during visits, that should take place behind perspex glass to remove that human contact," he said.

"Those caught with drugs also need to be segregated within the prison so that they can't continue to peddle drugs to other prisoners because those prisoners have a right to be protected from drugs while in prison, and currently the prison service is failing those prisoners.

"The prison service owes a duty of care to prisoners and it is failing in that because of this endemic problem. They need to to step up to the mark to deal it."

Paul Givan says action also needs to be taken to limit the amount of prescription drugs given to prisoners.

The director general of the prison service, Sue McAllister, has promised a zero tolerance approach to drugs in jails.

In his written response to Mr Givan, justice minister David Ford said an operational governor within the prison service is conducting a review of the effectiveness of measures in place to minimise the availability of illicit drugs in prisons and is expected to shortly submit a report outlining his initial findings.

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