It is virtually impossible to escape the notion that as a society, the core instruments of the state are at breaking point. One only has to turn on the news or look online at any given time, and you will be inundated with images of our most valued public assets cricking to the point of oblivion. If we take for example the health service in the North, nearly every strand of the NHS here is not fit for purpose. Staff are underpaid and overworked and the sick and most vulnerable languish on waiting lists. It is an extremely dire situation, however, there is a part of our health service, which is very often overlooked, in an even worse state of affairs, the Prison Healthcare system.

I, Jack Murphy, am a legal executive with McIvor Farrell Solicitors based in Belfast, and I have the privilege to deal with the vast majority of cases in our prison law department and our clients who find themselves in custody. I have been dealing with prison law issues for a number of years now and even from taking my very first set of instructions from clients in HMP Maghaberry, Magilligan or Hydebank, it became blatantly obvious to me, that the health care system within our prison system had serious issues which was placing our clients at risk of serious harm. I have had countless phone calls and in-person consultations within the prison setting, with by now, hundreds of clients, who have detailed in harrowing and distressing detail, how they have suffered and continue to suffer due to the inadequacies in the treatment they are receiving from Prison Healthcare.

lack of addiction care, mental health care and medication being withdrawn with no proper alternative being offered

Jack Murphy

From these consultations with clients within the prison, I note the same issues keep arising; a lack of addiction care, mental health care and medication being withdrawn with no proper alternative being offered. For me, the most pressing matter is the failure of Prison Healthcare to provide adequate addiction treatment to clients seeking this and I can detail firsthand the devastating effects as a result of this failure. As of only last week, our office received the tragic news that a longstanding client had sadly passed away due to a drug overdose. I had consulted with this client last year, and we had spoken about how he wished to receive addiction treatment within the prison. He wanted to turn his life around and to be off all drugs when he was eventually released back into the community. We set about sending correspondence to Prison Healthcare, imploring them to allow our client to avail of addiction treatment, but this was constantly met with resistance for a number of reasons, which can be boiled down to huge waiting lists of prisoners seeking addiction treatment and a clear lack of funding into this system. Last week we tragically heard that because of the failure to provide treatment in custody, the client had sadly died due to a drug overdose not long after being released from prison. I had a phone call this week from a client who was also in custody. He knew our client who tragically died, and he commented “Do you know Jack, if he received the help he was begging for he wouldn’t be getting buried this week”. This statement, for me, says it all really.

This is just one tragic case and set of circumstances which highlights how the prison healthcare system within this jurisdiction is at breaking point. There are sadly many more similar stories. It must also be stated that this is not an issue that only affects prisoners, it is an issue that has an effect on our wider society. If we look at why we imprison people, the ethos behind it is to try and provide rehabilitation for those people. In my opinion, as a society we are failing to do this if we do not have in place a properly funded and adequate prison healthcare system, which allows prisoners to receive proper mental health care and addiction treatment. It is a damning indictment on the system itself, if we have prisoners who are seeking to better themselves and become truly rehabilitated but cannot do this due to this inadequate system. It will be society as a whole that suffers in the long run if we cannot adequately provide the tools for prisoners to better themselves and move away from the life they formerly lived.

I wanted to write this piece in the hope of trying to bring attention to this matter. If one person reads it the article and learns about the issues affecting our prison system, it will have achieved its goal. I also wanted to write this to show the tragic consequences that can arise if we continue to allow the prison healthcare system to implode, which is sadly exhibited by the tragic death of our client. If action is not taken urgently by the state, unfortunately, many more deaths will occur and many more lives which could have been saved, will be lost. We must continue to fight to prevent this from happening.

Jack Murphy is a Legal Executive with McIvor Farrell Solicitors. Jack works in a number of areas including Human Rights, Criminal Law and legacy litigation. Jack has a keen interest in Prison Law, representing many clients who find themselves in custody in this jurisdiction. Jack is passionate about assisting the most vulnerable in society as he represents families of those who lost loved ones due to homelessness, addiction and mental health issues in our community. Jack is also a director on the board of the charity Belfast Homeless Services.

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