We wrote to Northern Ireland's Justice Minister, Naomi Long, last week about the the isolation of Dr Issam Hijjawi Basalat in Maghaberry Prison. He was released from isolation and transferred to Maghaberry Prison's Roe House (where Republican prisoners are held) on Tuesday 29 September, after enduring 14 days isolatiion on top of the 14 days he had already endured on admission to the prison.
Naomi Long replied to our letter on 30 September. She said "it would not be appropriate for me to comment upon the personal circumstances of someone in our care" but did address some of the general concerns we raised.
Surprisingly, she made no comment on the hunger strike or on prison policy for dealing with hunger strikes.
One of the points we made was that " the physical condition of facilities in Foyle House is reported to be very poor." She made no comment about that.
Another point we made was: "There are unconfirmed reports that two loyalist prisoners have recently visited outside hospitals and have returned to Bush House at Maghaberry Prison without undergoing isolation at Foyle House."
She did not dispute these reports but said:
"Each time a prisoner leaves to attend hospital, the same approach to risk assessment is taken. The risks posed to the prisoner and staff on return are considered carefully by the decision making Governor, thereby ensuring, as far as possible, that the most current available expert health advice regarding Covid-19 management is followed.
On this basis it is not automatically the case that any prisoner who attends outside hospital will be returned to isolation. Decisions in this respect are be made at that time, taking into account relevant factors and risk. Any decision made will be entirely predicated on the risk posed and how that risk should be managed."
Far too often, prisons use procedures supposedly driven by practical needs as a tool for the targeted harassment of prisoners. Strip searches are often used in that way. There is no effective means of ensuring that prison governor's decisions really are "entirely predicated on the risk posed." Covid-19 prevention measures are wide open to abuse. We hope that is not what happened in Issam Hijjawi's case.
Our letter and Naomi Long's response are published in full below.
Letter to Naomi Long
Attn: Naomi Long MLA (Minister of Justice)
I am writing to you on behalf of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC) over our concerns about the treatment of Dr Issam Hijjawi Basalat, a remand prisoner at Maghaberry Prison. I understand that you have already spoken about this matter in the Assembly.
Shortly after being moved to Roe House from an initial 14 days of isolation in Foyle House, Dr Hijjawi visited an outside hospital for an MRI scan. On return, he was placed in Foyle House again for a further 14 days in isolation. He then embarked on a hunger strike in protest at his treatment. A substantial number of other prisoners have joined the hunger strike in support of Dr Hijjawi.
Our primary concern is for the welfare of Dr Hijjawi, with whom I am acquainted through his role within the Palestinian community in Edinburgh. We also have wider concerns about the effect of COVID19 on prisons, and in a particular about the use of isolation.
Dr Hijjawi's treatment is problematic in a number of ways:
1) Its effect on Dr Hijjawi is unduly and unacceptably oppressive. If he remains at Foyle House until the completion of the scheduled 14 days of isolation, he will have undergone a total of 28 days of isolation, with a very brief break at Roe House, in the course of his admission to Maghaberry.
2) The procedure appears disproportionate to the risk of infection presented by Dr Hijjawi. Admission from a short hospital visit would appear to carry a substantially lower risk than initial admission from the community. According to reports, prison staff who accompanied Dr Hijjawi to the hospital have returned immediately to their duties at the prison. If true, this suggests that the Maghaberry authorities do not in fact regard exposure to the hospital environment as creating an unacceptable level of risk.
3) The physical condition of facilities in Foyle House is reported to be very poor.
4) I understand that there are vacant cells in Roe House. If the continued isolation of Dr Hijjawi is indeed necessary (although the points made in (2) suggest otherwise), it appears that it could be done in Roe House, a situation that Dr Hijjawi may find less unsatisfactory.
5) Testing with a rapid turnarround could reduce the duration of precautionary isolation. It appears that this is not being done. This is of course an issue that affects everyone admitted to prison, not only Dr Hijjawi. The detrimental effects of isolation are very well known. The Prison Service has a clear duty to minimise the use of isolation while taking all necessary precautions to protect the prison population from COVID19. Testing should be a key part of this process.
6) There are unconfirmed reports that two loyalist prisoners have recently visited outside hospitals and have returned to Bush House at Maghaberry Prison without undergoing isolation at Foyle House. If true, this would raise very serious questions about the reasons for Dr Hijjawi's isolation.
7) Dr Hijjawi's medical issues are a continuing cause for concern and I hope that the authorities at Maghaberry will ensure that he has access to any necessary medication and is as comfortable as possible.
I hope that, as Minister for Justice, you will intervene to put an end to the crisis developing around Dr Hijjawi. He is a remand prisoner and is entitled to a presumption of innocence. He is currently being held in conditions equivalent to those of a severely punitive prison regime simply because he had the misfortune to require a hospital visit. I am certain that a better and more balanced approach to the problem is possible.
Chair, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities (SACC)
Response from Naomi Long
30 September 2020
Dear Mr Haley,
Thank you for your letter. I am of course aware of the individual case you have raised in your correspondence; however, it would not be appropriate for me to comment upon the personal circumstances of someone in our care.
I do hope that I can nevertheless address some of the general concerns you have raised.
NIPS are diligently and actively managing the operational response to Coronavirus (Covid-19) in the community. The assessment and management of the risks posed by the virus within the context of the overall prison estate seeks to protect and promote the health and safety of prisoners, NIPS staff and the wider public.
The approach to the possible isolation of prisoners entering or returning to the prison are a direct response to the risks posed by Covid-19. NIPS have introduced specific isolation areas in each prison establishment with safeguards in place, including in respect of staff and prisoners using personal protective equipment, specific cleaning routines and a regime designed and managed to avoid risks of infection. It is not possible to introduce equivalent safeguards in a normal residential location.
Decisions regarding isolation in some cases, including return from hospital appointments/visits, are a matter of discretion for each Governor, who considers all relevant aspects and makes a decision based on risk.
Prisoners attending hospital engage in direct face to face close contact and physical examinations of a type that invariably increases the potential for cross-infection. Therefore, a prisoner attending a hospital currently experiencing high volumes of serious Covid-19 infections, resulting in significant ill health and death, who has engaged in those examinations, interactions and close contact with numerous multi-disciplinary staff, represents a significant risk on return to the prison population.
Each time a prisoner leaves to attend hospital, the same approach to risk assessment is taken. The risks posed to the prisoner and staff on return are considered carefully by the decision making Governor, thereby ensuring, as far as possible, that the most current available expert health advice regarding Covid-19 management is followed.
On this basis it is not automatically the case that any prisoner who attends outside hospital will be returned to isolation. Decisions in this respect are be made at that time, taking into account relevant factors and risk. Any decision made will be entirely predicated on the risk posed and how that risk should be managed.
Staff who escort prisoners outside an establishment wear PPE and, therefore, based on current PHA advice, do not have to isolate for 14 days on return. Unlike these staff, it was and is not possible for prisoners attending hospital to wear such equipment at all times when accessing certain types of medical care and treatment, including, for example, an MRI scanner. It is also not necessary for escorting staff to have the same level of direct and up close contact with healthcare professionals or equipment.
All NIPS staff adhere to the best practice and current health advice, regarding PPE use and hygiene while at work, and are encouraged to do the same when not at work. They are not exposed to the same level of potential infection at hospitals as prisoners, for the reasons outlined above.
Since March 2020 over 1,300 men have come through the Isolation unit at Maghaberry before progressing into the main prison population. During the 14 days when a person is in an isolation unit they have access to their clothes, legal representation, showers, and can maintain family contact. If an individual raises a concern about their cell accommodation with staff, action will be taken to address any issues. The South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust (SEHSCT) are tasked with healthcare provision and management within prisons in Northern Ireland. SEHSCT staff support individuals in isolation on an ongoing basis, and will see individuals with specific health concerns on a daily basis.
I have been very impressed by the work to keep our prisons safe for staff and those in our care throughout this time. That is illustrated by the fact that only eleven members of staff and one prisoner who was in our care has tested positive during this period.
I hope you will find this response helpful.
NAOMI LONG MLA
Minister of Justice
Photo: Maghaberry Prison, 19/11/2018 © Michael Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo