'Like a prisoner': Man with learning disabilities 'locked up' in hospital for 35 years

ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith reports on the harrowing story of 56-year-old Bryan McCarry who has spent his entire adult life under lock-and-key

By Specialist Producer Reshma Rumsey

When Bryan McCarry was last at liberty to walk the streets of his hometown in Northern Ireland, the world was a very different place.

Margaret Thatcher was in power, there was tragedy when a plane crashed into the town of Lockerbie and the average house price was £60,0000.It was 1988. Bryan was 21 years old, and despite the challenges of autism and learning disabilities, his family hoped he would get the help he needed to build a happy future.

Bryan was detained under the Mental Health Act at the Muckamore Abbey Hospital in Antrim, Northern Ireland for assessment.

It was supposed to be for 12 weeks to allow health officials to prepare a treatment plan. Nearly 35 years later he is still there and his family say they never received a treatment plan.

His sister, Mrs McNeilly told ITV News: “The day that he went to Muckamore, I’ll never forget it. It was the most traumatic day of my life. They started to take him into the ward and we went to go in after him and the door was closed in our face and we were told we weren’t allowed in.“

Mrs McNeilly says since that day, Bryan has been languishing in the hospital and believes he has fewer rights than a prisoner.

Bryan with his mother, who died in 2015. Credit: ITV News

“That’s my brother’s entire adult life he has spent behind walls under lock and key as if he was some sort of a prisoner."

Bryan was cleared for discharge in 1997, but the Trust in charge of his care, the Northern HSC Trust, has been unable to find a suitable alternative for him. And at 56, Mrs McNeilly believes her brother has been an inpatient for one of the longest periods of time in the UK. She told ITV News her brother has become institutionalised.

“He is receiving no active treatment and the only reason he’s there is because the health trust has failed to provide an appropriate home for him in the community.

"My mother died in 2015 and my only consolation is that she never heard about the abuse in Muckamore" - the trauma has been compounded for Bryan and his family by allegations he has been physically abused

"He is sedated and just left to waste away. It’s a disgrace that the Trust has been allowed to treat people this way.”The hospital is now at the centre of an unprecedented inquiry into its treatment of patients that has been described "as one of the largest investigations into adult safeguarding failures in the history of the NHS”. There is also an ongoing public inquiry.Mrs McNeilly is taking legal action. Her lawyer Claire McKeegan is also representing at least 50 other families whose relatives have been locked away in Muckamore.

Bryan's mother was told by doctors it would be "far better to put him into an institution," his sister tells ITV News

She told us: “Our clients have been informed by police about allegations of assaults, of alleged kicks, punches and being thrown to the ground. We have had a number of alleged sexual assaults.

She continued: "One of the things we hear repeatedly is that my son or my daughter was admitted to Muckamore so that he or she could be assessed and have a treatment plan and move forward.

"And 10 years later no one has heard the outcome of this assessment and suddenly this individual becomes locked in a system of institutionalisation and is trapped in a manner that they are unable to get back into society.

"Those people have less rights (sic) than those in jail.”

Although Bryan’s case is not part of the main police investigation and no one has been charged in relation to his care, Mrs McNeilly says she has serious concerns about her brother’s safety and wants him to be moved from Muckamore as soon as possible.

“I was informed by staff that, It was actually a member of staff who pulled Bryan’s trousers and pants down in a common area where there were other people around.

Bryan's sister said the day he went into Muckamore Abbey Hospital was the most 'traumatic' of her life. Credit: ITV News

"We have been informed of approximately in the region of 30 to 40 incidents.

"My mother died in 2015 and my only consolation is that she never heard about the abuse in Muckamore.”

Bryan was born with autism and learning disabilities but was not diagnosed until he was a young child in 1970. Instead of receiving the support and empathy she expected from doctors, Bryan’s mother was horrified by the advice they gave her.

“Doctors told my mother he’d never be any different from what he was at that time and that she would be far better to put him in an institution and forget about him.

"And for any mother, that’s something devastating that nobody should ever have to be told.”

Bryan’s case goes back more than three decades but it seems little has changed. People with learning disabilities and autism are still being locked away for years in inappropriate conditions. Mrs McNeilly says the system has done exactly that to her brother - locked him away and forgotten about him.

Bryan's family hoped he would get the help he needed to build a happy future. Credit: ITV News

She told us she’s angry that despite Muckamore being at the centre of an inquiry and facing multiple allegations of abuse, it’s still deemed to be the best option for Bryan and the others currently in Muckamore.“Nobody seems to care. He doesn’t have a quality of life. He needs to be living in the community with supported care so he can be happy and enjoy whatever time he has left on this earth. He deserves it.” Belfast Trust, which runs Muckamore, told ITV News while they can’t comment on Bryan’s individual case, they have and will continue to apologise to Bryan and his family and to all those who received care at Muckamore that fell below acceptable standards.They say they’ve taken a number of steps to improve patient safety and increase standards of care including measures to identify instances of concern more quickly. They insist "the safeguarding of our patients remains our priority". In a statement, the Trust said: "However there are very many challenges to resettlement. We must ensure that any resident who is being resettled is placed in an appropriate environment with the right infrastructure so that they receive the right level of care. 

"Less rights that prisoners" - lawyer Claire McKeegan is representing about 50 families whose relatives have been locked away in Muckamore

"We are working with our patients and their families, our partners in the community and other Trusts to ensure each long-term resident in Muckamore Abbey Hospital has a home which best meets their needs in the most appropriate way, with the wellbeing of patients being our primary concern."Northern HSC Trust, which is responsible for Bryan’s resettlement told us: "We work closely with patients and families with the primary aim of arriving at a bespoke solution that will be in the best interests of the patients.”Mrs McNeilly refuses to give up and says she is determined to fight for the freedom and the future her brother craves.

If you have been affected by issues raised in this story and you would like to share your experiences, please email

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