Following a visit to HMP Parc, in South Wales, Austin Treacy, Governor of Maghaberry Prison in Belfast and his team are committed to replicating the Family Intervention model devised there and setting up their own Family Interventions Unit in Maghaberry. Our visit enabled us to explore how Family Man and Fathers Inside could be an integral component of this model, just as they are at Parc, supporting prisoners to maintain healthy relationships with their families. The structured ‘What Next’ sessions which form a key part of courses also provide opportunities to strengthen links between prison and outside community, by enabling students and their families to meet representatives from a number of internal and external agencies who can provide local support in a number of resettlement areas.Last week, Safe Ground’s Director, Charlie and I went to meet with the team at HMP Maghaberry, Northern Ireland’s largest high security prison and discuss the possibility of Family Man and Fathers Inside being embedded in the regime.
The ‘Black Cab’ tours are apparently legendary in Belfast, but we were lucky enough to go one step further, securing a personal guide in the form of Austin Treacy, HMP Maghaberry’s Governing Governor. Austin generously took us on a grand tour of the city, pointing out sights including the Falls Road and Shankhill Road, home to a vast array of murals depicting much of the city’s history. His patience in answering our countless questions helped us to gain an understanding of the city’s history and an insight into what it feels like to live there now.
Fortunately, our endless questions didn’t put Austin off, and the following day we embarked upon a tour of the prison. The staff we met throughout the day were consistently warm and insightful and helped us to gain a better understanding of the prison and the context within which it operates. HMP Magahaberry is one of just three prisons in Northern Ireland and is the largest by far. The other two, Magilligan and Hydebank Wood, contain lower category prisoners, young offenders and female offenders.
Interestingly, the female prison population is extremely low, with just 50 women in custody at Hydebank. Magahaberry, on the other hand, routinely houses about 1000 prisoners, about half of whom are on remand at any given time. The prison houses large proportions of men on remand, diagnosed with personality disorders, of Foreign National status and men with offences of a sexual nature or against children, who are integrated with the rest of the population.
At first glance, Maghaberry appears similar to many other British prisons, with the same architecture as HMPs Frankland and Full Sutton; however, what stood out for me was the greenery that weaves around the prison, with flowers on every corner. Austin and his team seemed to take great pride in the maintenance of the establishment, which was upheld by some of the prisoners we had a chance to talk to. When we got around to seeing the new Learning and Skills Department, I thought that it was among the best I’ve seen, with curves and colour and walls mounted with students’ art. It was only a shame that not all of the Eduction classes were as well attended as the Art class, a challenge acknowledged by Austin. Another highlight was the therapeutic gardens, predominately maintained by vulnerable prisoners at risk of self harm and those with personality disorders. Many of the men we spoke to were enthusiastic about their involvement in this outside environment and highlighted how safe they felt. The gardens extended to another area of the prison, managed by Dennis, a warm and generous officer who had clearly built a strong professional rapport with the students, and had a bursting garden full of seasonal fruit and veg.
What sets Maghaberry aside from other British establishments is the number of separated political prisoners protesting against their imprisonment and the regime they are subjected to. It was a bit surreal to spend the morning on the therapeutic wing and in the education department, then to go and see the developing Family Interventions Wing before lunch and to arrive after lunch to be asked if we wanted to put on protective clothing. This offer upon entrance to the wing where separated political prisoners are held occurred because men have been on a dirty protest in this wing for over a year. For us to be in a situation where political prisoners take up a whole wing, where staff have cause to check their cars and houses for bombs regularly, where changing your route to work regularly is a necessity, was new. To have to consider putting on protective clothing before entering a landing was a moment of dissonance- compounded by the ‘cat’ litter stacked up against the wall. We didn’t put on protective clothing and we got a chance to experience the extreme tension, complexity and political skill required in navigating sectarian conflict in a ‘post-conflict’ society, inside a prison. The fact that the rest of the prison is so progressive and the team manage to achieve the calm, clean, productive environment they do can only be a testament to leadership.
We are all really excited about the prospect of Family Man and Fathers Inside expanding into Northern Ireland; Maghaberry seems a natural home for the programmes and by the end of this year, we should be working together. We are really excited about the prospect and very much looking forward to our next trip.