Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

The prisoner who sued after getting sunburnt on a rooftop jail protest

£10,000 a week paid out in compensation as the shocking extent of prison claim culture is revealed

Protesting in the sun: prisoners on the roof of Maghaberry Prison in 2003

Almost £10,000 a week in compensation has been handed out to prison officers and inmates for injuries sustained in Northern Ireland’s jails.

The majority of the cash was paid following accidents, such as a fall, or for smoke inhalation during cell fires, according to Prison Service information.

And the Belfast Telegraph can reveal that one inmate lodged a compensation claim for sunburn after he climbed on to a roof in Maghaberry Prison on a hot day to stage a protest.

The protest occurred more than two years ago and the prisoner subsequently submitted the claim for compensation for his injuries.

It is not clear, however, from the information if the claim was successful as the Prison Service said that to release details of specific claims would breach human rights under the Data Protection Act.

The information, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that over the past three years more than £1.1m was spent settling 147 claims by prison staff.

Almost 80 wardens claimed for injuries sustained in an accident, such as slipping, or for smoke inhalation from cell fires. The highest single payment for an accident was £71,022.

Another 62 staff members received money for being hurt during a violent assault. One officer injured during an attack received £136,860.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) also paid out £332,533 to 84 prisoners over the past three years.

Fifty of the inmates received cash for hurting themselves in a fall or through smoke inhalation. The highest single payout was £25,000. Another 11 inmates received compensation following an assault, with one receiving over £18,000.

The Prison Service said that every claim made “is assessed on its own merits, with due regard for money and expenses to the public purse”.

A spokesman added that when claims are made they are dealt with robustly by the NIPS claims unit.

“Where a claim is considered to be justified, the claims unit applies a ‘Green Book’ or ‘precedent’ approach, based on that used by courts in making judgments about the quantum necessary to settle a particular type of claim,” he said.

The spokesman also said the Prison Service recently established a working group “aimed at improving the claims handling process in order to minimise costs to the public purse and to identify risks that can be managed to reduce the likelihood of future claims”.

David McNarry MLA said the amount of money paid out on compensation was “excessive” and that he believed there were problems within the system when so much was spent compensating staff and prisoners for injuries.

“It is almost a joke when you hear that people whose job it is to look after the welfare of prisoners end up getting knocked about and injured themselves, physically and mentally. And then we hear about prisoners who seem to have made some money out of being in jail,” he said.

He added: “I’m not saying that the claims are not legitimate but there must be something wrong with the structures in the service when this is allowed to happen.

“The public will be asking what is going wrong. We need every penny we can save and we cannot be throwing it away like confetti.”

But chairman of the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) Finlay Spratt said these “legitimate claims by staff show the challenging environment” they work in.

“We are entitled to a safe working environment and if officers are injured while on duty then they deserve the same rights to compensation as workers in other sectors. We work in a very volatile situation and officers get injured,” said Mr Spratt.

Justice committee chairman Paul Givan said the compensation payments “reflect the nature of the job”. “This money would not be paid out unless the Prison Service was satisfied that compensation should be awarded,” the DUP MLA added.

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