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£220,000 compo bill in our prisons after inmates sue 542 times in three years

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 25/01/2016

DUP MLA Alex Easton
DUP MLA Alex Easton

The Prison Service has been hit with a £220,000 compensation bill after being sued more than 500 times in the last three years.

A total of 542 claims have been made by inmates since 2013.

It means a prisoner sues the Prison System every other day on average.

The figures were released by Justice Minister David Ford.

DUP MLA Alex Easton said: "I find it incredible that prisoners are in a position to make so many claims off the Prison Service.

"We need to get to the bottom of what is going on."

It comes a fortnight after the Belfast Telegraph revealed how the system was being swamped by up to 30 complaints a day.

Almost 9,000 issues were raised in the space of just 11 months.

In one case an inmate reportedly posted the contents of his lunch with his complaint about the food into the prison's grievance box. Mr Ford confirmed that since April 2013 a total of £222,145 was paid out in compensation after 542 claims.

A breakdown of the figures shows £68,895 was paid out between April 1 and December 31 last year after 195 claims.

In 2014/15, some £83,454 was awarded after 188 claims.

And in 2013/14 a total of 159 claims were settled, leading to £69,796 in compensation.

Mr Easton, who obtained the details after an Assembly question, said he was staggered by the number of claims.

"I am completely shocked at the amount of money claimed by prisoners," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"There must be some sort of review to understand what this money is being paid out for. It is absolutely staggering.

"We need to try and get an understanding of what type of claims are coming in and what this compensation is for."

A Prison Service source described the extent of compensation claims as "astounding".

He claimed cutbacks had led to a sharp reduction in staff numbers, making prisons more dangerous places. "You see a lot of assaults - particularly prisoner on prisoner, and the department ends up being held responsible," he said.

The compensation culture in Northern Ireland's prison system was first highlighted by this newspaper two weeks ago.

According to the Prison Service, in the space of 11 months last year, 8,848 complaints were made by prisoners at our four prison facilities: Maghaberry, Magilligan, the Young Offender Centre at Hydebank and the female prison at Hydebank.

There are around 1,500 inmates currently being held in Prison Service custody.

A Belfast Telegraph Freedom of Information request revealed prison accommodation was the cause of more than 2,000 complaints.

A further 1,368 complaints were made about staff, 498 about lock-ups, 287 about food, 333 in relation to education and 186 about health and safety.

More than 60 allegations of assault by staff members and 18 by another inmate were also made.

Around half of all complaints were made by separated republican prisoners - who represent less than 2% of the overall prison population - according to Alastair Ross, who chairs the Assembly's justice committee.

In November an inspection report described Maghaberry Prison as the most dangerous ever inspected by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons.

A spokesman for the Department of Justice said: "Each Prison has a dedicated health and safety unit with support from the Headquarters Health and Safety Adviser.

"Health and Safety systems and procedures are in place that meet legislative requirements with oversight provided by quarterly reports to the Prison Service Management Board.

"Prisoner injuries reported to the Health and Safety Unit, will be investigated and control measures considered to prevent reoccurrence.

"The majority of claims received and paid out are for slips, trips and falls."

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