Prison officers at risk of dissident republican attack have been issued with body armour to protect themselves.
Head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service Robin Masefield told the Stormont Justice Committee yesterday that individual officers have been threatened and that steps have been taken to help increase their personal safety.
He said that the current security threat against the Prison Service is “substantial”, which means that an attack is a strong possibility.
“We are very conscious of the threat and we have a duty of care to our staff and prisoners. We are conscious of the increasing threat level and increased number of warnings, but not always exclusively in relation to dissidents,” Mr Masefield said. He added: “There are a number of steps we have already proactively taken in liaison with the police so, for example, we have issued some external body protection for staff in more exposed areas or those more at risk.”
Relations between management and union the Prison Officers Association are notoriously shaky, with the POA taking industrial action and staging a work to rule in Maghaberry prison on three occasions.
The disputes arose out of a disagreement over working conditions and disciplinary procedures following the death of prisoner Colin Bell, who hanged himself while on suicide watch in Maghaberry Prison in 2008.
Disciplinary action was taken against several members of staff, however the POA said that the disciplinary procedures had not been followed correctly and insisted that an external panel adjudicate in the case.
Committee member Alban Maginness told Mr Masefield he thought it was “outrageous” that subsequent to Mr Bell’s death the POA took action to protect those allegedly negligent while on duty.