Prison Service Director General responds to Ombudsman Report

Date published: 22 March 2023

Northern Ireland Prison Service Director General Ronnie Armour today welcomed the publication of the Prisoner Ombudsman’s Report in relation to the death in custody of James Fleck on 8th March 2019.

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In commenting on the report, Mr Armour said: "The death of James was a tragedy for his family and I want to extend our deepest sympathies to them at this difficult time."  

Ronnie Armour continued: “In her report the Ombudsman explains that James was clear about not wanting to address his addictions and about not being in need of support. Despite this, the Ombudsman concluded, ‘at committal Mr Fleck was assessed as being at risk….and as a result received the necessary healthcare support and management by the Prison Service to keep him as safe as was possible’.

“It is also important to note also the Ombudsman was satisfied that ‘on finding James unresponsive the Prison Officers responded with immediacy and that they should be commended for their efforts’.  Any death in custody has a profound impact on our staff and I am reassured that they did all they could to keep James alive.”

The Director General went on to highlight the wider issue of addiction in prisons and the challenges this presents to prison and healthcare staff.

Ronnie Armour continued: “The Ombudsman has highlighted addiction and mental health issues that many people have when they come into our care.  In our three prisons we have almost 1,800 individuals, with over 30% having mental health issues and over 50% with addiction issues.

“That means over 900 people are battling addictions when they come into prison.  This puts into context the size of the challenge facing our staff and the doctors and nurses from the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust who deliver healthcare in our prisons.”

Ronnie Armour also commented on the letter sent by the Ombudsman in 2020, noting that the concerns she raised were addressed by the RQIA in a report it published in 2021. It recommended ‘Commissioners (then, the HSCB) and providers (SEHSCT) should work together to develop a service specification for an integrated model of care for mental health provision within the prison service; this should be informed by a robust needs assessment taking into account the needs of vulnerable people in custody. Underpinned by the right to health, there should be equitable seven-day provision across all prison sites’.

In concluding, Ronnie Armour said: “The pressure faced by doctors, nurses, and prison staff should not be underestimated. Collectively we are doing everything we can to support those in our care who are in crisis, but as the RQIA has stated, prison healthcare needs to be properly resourced to meet the increasing demands.”  

Notes to editors: 

  1. Media enquiries should be directed to the Department of Justice Press Office via email to:
  2. The Executive Information Service operates an out of hours service for media enquiries only between 1800hrs and 0800hrs Monday to Friday and at weekends and public holidays. The duty press officer can be contacted on 028 9037 8110.

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