Northern Ireland

Maghaberry Prison: Governor Phil Wragg 'can address concerns'

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Media captionMaghaberry prison governor Phil Wragg said he expected a far more positive inspection in January

The man in charge of Northern Ireland's high security Maghaberry prison says he is confident he can address serious concerns raised in a critical report.

Inspectors labelled the prison, near Lisburn, as the most dangerous in Europe, describing it as unsafe, unstable and in a state of crisis.

Phil Wragg was appointed governor in August, three months after the inspection was carried out.

He told the BBC that significant improvements have already been made.

He said he expects a much more positive report when the inspectors return in January.

"What you have to remember about the inspection is that it was a snapshot in time, at a time the establishment was seen to be having a number of particular concerns," he said.

"The words the inspectors used are not how I would describe Maghaberry today."

Image caption A team of more than 20 inspectors spent almost two weeks assessing conditions at the jail in May

Phil Wragg is no stranger to tough prison regimes.

He spent six years at HMP Belmarsh, a category A maximum security prison in south London.

He will need all of that experience to tackle the problems at Maghaberry.

It has been the subject of a series of critical reports in recent years, but the one published last week was by far the most critical ever published about a prison in Northern Ireland.

Sitting in his office in the prison, I asked how he felt when he read the inspectors' damning assessment.

"Reports of that nature are something that no prison governor ever wants to see about his or her establishment, and indeed the Prison Service don't want to see reports like that," he said.

"But we as a service are working jointly together to ensure that all of our establishments operate to the required high performance standard."

As always after critical reports, the Prison Service last week said it has an action plan to address the concerns raised.

Mr Wragg said that plan aims to tackle three main areas: resourcing, regimes and outcomes for prisoners.

"As a team we are working together, challenging those areas of concern. I am confident that we are moving positively forward and making progress.

"That doesn't mean to say I don't recognise there is work to do, but we are making steady but sure progress."

Image caption Phil Wragg said tackling staff sickness absences was important

Before the inspection team visited Maghaberry, the Prison Governors' Association warned that it was under-staffed and under-resourced.

Mr Wragg said tackling high rates of sickness absence was the key to improving safety and stability within the prison.

Maghaberry currently employs around 630 prison officers. When inspectors visited in May, 95 were of them were off sick - that is nearly 15% of the total.

This week, the number of staff off sick had fallen to 48.

"That means we have more resources in the establishment," Mr Wragg said.

"That then lowers tension, it increases morale, it allows us to get prisoners out of their cells and into a form of regime which assists us to deal with their offending behaviour.

"If we make the mood of the establishment better then we can produce a much better out turn and that makes it easier and better for my staff to operate in, but also for prisoners, it allows us to have the opportunity to deal with their offending needs and their health care needs."

'Good relationship'

A current recruitment campaign will also boost the number of officers he has available. Just over 1,000 people have applied to join the Prison Service.

Critics and inspectors have consistently said a major part of the problem at Maghaberry is that the Prison Officers' Association (POA) is too powerful, and resistant to change.

"Absolutely not, the POA and my management team have a good working relationship," Mr Wragg said.

"I have regular meetings with the local POA branch officials to ensure that they are part of the process of moving the establishment forward.

"Prison officers need to know how I intend to move the establishment forward, they are indeed part of moving the establishment forward and I want and I welcome their input."

He also rejected suggestions that the POA effectively runs Maghaberry.

"The prison governor is definitely running this prison," he said.

'Confident'

"The POA however are part of solution design because it's important that people who are operational, who carry out the roles on the landings and in the cells, see where we can benefit from their insight and their work methodology."

Inspectors said they were so concerned by the situation in Maghaberry that they would return in January to assess what progress has been made.

"There is no way we are going to address all of the issues in such a short period of time, that is just a physical impossibility," Mr Wragg acknowledged.

"But I'm confident that the inspection team will see a different Maghaberry, they'll see a safer Maghaberry, a cleaner Maghaberry."

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