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Almost 80 Northern Ireland prison officers assaulted in a year, figures reveal

By Allan Preston

Nearly 80 prison officers were attacked in Northern Ireland during the past year, new figures have revealed.

A written question to the Justice Minister Claire Sugden by the UUP MLA Doug Beattie showed that 77 individual prison officers were assaulted between December 1, 2015, and November 11 last year.

Maghaberry Prison was the worst affected by far with assaults against 49 staff. Hydebank College which houses female prisoners and young offenders recorded attacks on 22 warders, with Magilligan Prison in Londonderry reporting six assaults.

The Justice Minister's answer added that assaults in prison "cover a wide range of violent incidents and it is not possible to provide a further breakdown by type."

In March last year, a separate Assembly question by the TUV leader Jim Allister showed that there had been 299 separate assaults over a three-year period, the equivalent of an attack every three days. Last November disturbing news emerged of how one female prison officer in Maghaberry's Shimna House was tied to a chair with sticking tape by a number of prisoners who were later relocated in the general prison population.

An inside source at Maghaberry prison told the Sunday Life in November the incident showed how vulnerable overstretched prison staff felt.

"The gang involved in the sellotape assault should be brought before a court, not simply transferred to other wings at Maghaberry," the source said.

"The female officer was terrified, she feared for her life."

In March last year, prison officer Adrian Ismay died from a heart attack 11 days after a bomb planted by dissident republicans exploded under his van.

In 2012, Maghaberry Prison warden David Black was shot and killed by dissident republicans on the M1 while driving to work.

Commenting on the latest figures, Mr Beattie said the number could be much higher.

"I don't know if all these assaults are violent, but I would suggest it's quite high and a lot of it is going unreported in the media," he said.

"In regards to prison officers feeling threatened in work because of the low staffing levels, I've raised this time and time again. We're operating with something like 120 prison officers short from what the prison service say they should have. That doesn't include those on long-term absence.

"The prison service would say they don't have the money to pay them so there's a fundamental issue there."

He added that prisoners who violently assaulted staff "should face the full weight of the law".

"Just because they're already serving their sentence in prison, doesn't mitigate them against adhering to the law or social norms," he said.

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