Security levels for less dangerous prisoners in Northern Ireland should be reduced to aid resettlement in the community, an inspection said.
The annual cost of reoffending by ex-prisoners to the criminal justice system was estimated at £80 million in 2010, yet Maghaberry prison, near Lisburn in Co Antrim, is being managed to standards suitable for high-risk prisoners, with the less dangerous forced to suffer the same restrictions, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland added.
Many inmates were restricted in where they could work and there was no unescorted movement, which tied up large numbers of staff, the inspectorate's report said. More positive resettlement measures can help ensure prisoners return to society better educated and fewer reoffend, the document added.
The report warned: "We recommend the NIPS (Northern Ireland Prison Service) should set targets to reduce security levels and deliver a more liberal regime for lower security prisoners in each of its prisons."
The process of resettlement of offenders has improved but some concerns remain. The category A high-security population seldom numbers more than 50 - mainly separated loyalists and republicans who are held in very secure conditions. The limitations caused by that, restricting where prisoners can work and unescorted movement, also extend to inmates at Magilligan, where too many are classified as category B, the 42-page report said.
The document, An Inspection of Prisoner Resettlement by the Northern Ireland Prison Service, contained 22 recommendations. It followed a 2007 inspection and four years on, eight of the 14 recommendations have not been achieved.
Chief inspector Michael Maguire said: "It remains true that the successful delivery of resettlement continues to be hampered by working practices within the Northern Ireland Prison Service and its dominant security ethos."
The report said NIPS had made progress in several areas: Additional staff, over half of whom were non-prison service employees, had been allocated to help prisoners resettle; the regime for women prisoners and life sentence prisoners had improved; greater numbers of prisoners were involved in resettlement planning and prison officers were interacting more supportively with them.
Responding to the inspectors' report, Justice Minister David Ford said fundamental reform of the Northern Ireland Prison Service would be achieved, but stressed it would take time. "NIPS has already developed a renewed focus on the delivery of offender services and is working in partnership with others to put the offender at the heart of delivery," he said.
"The report highlights progress in a range of areas including the appointment of additional probation officers and NIPS staff; a better environment for some life sentence prisoners; better engagement with the community and voluntary sector; more consistent delivery of drugs and alcohol services; and a greater effort to address the resettlement needs of short-term and remand prisoners. However, the Prison Service accepts the inspection's conclusion that there is still a need to develop better outcomes for prisoners."