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Big rise in assaults on warders at women's jail is blamed on staff cuts

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 21/01/2016

Hazel Stewart
Hazel Stewart
Julie McGinley

Assaults on staff at Northern Ireland's women's prison have increased alarmingly.

A total of 21 attacks were recorded at Ash House last year.

That is a significant rise on the three incidents recorded in 2013.

The south Belfast jail holds between 40 and 50 female inmates.

They include double murderer Hazel Stewart, serving a minimum of 18 years for killing her husband Trevor Buchanan and her ex-lover's wife Lesley Howell.

Both murder victims were found in a fume-filled garage in Castlerock in 1991.

In total, 43 assaults on prison officers were recorded between 2013 and 2015.

Attacks have risen sharply from three in 2013, to 19 in 2014 and 21 last year.

The figures were released by Justice Minister David Ford after an Assembly question from DUP MLA Alex Easton.

Finlay Spratt, who chairs the Prison Officers' Association, said assaults on staff were increasing across the prison system.

"We know assaults are rising and the reason is quite simple - we don't have the same number of prison officers today that we had two or three years ago," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"There used to be four prison officers to look after 50 prisoners. That has now been cut back to two officers.

"Staffing levels have been cut all over the prison system. They talk about efficiency, and yes, we all have to be more efficient, but the safety of staff should come first."

Ash House is a housing block within the Hydebank Wood prison. Young offenders aged between 18 and 21 are also held at the site.

It is home to some of Northern Ireland's most notorious female killers.

'Black Widow' Julie McGinley served a 15-year sentence there for killing her husband Gerry.

Karen Walsh, who killed pensioner Maire Rankin and sexually assaulted her with a crucifix, is also held there.

Lindsay White, who beat 40-year-old homeless Polish man Marek Muszynski to death in Newry for just 50p, is another killer lodged at Ash House.

Last September it was revealed that almost 300 assaults took place on staff across the entire prison system in the past four years.

The figures were disclosed by Mr Ford after a question from Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann.

Mr Ford confirmed there had been a total of 282 assaults on staff in prisons in the four financial years beginning in 2011.

A detailed analysis carried out by the Prison Service found that crowding was the main factor. Mr Ford said a significant number of prisoners were moved from crowded residential areas in 2014 to address the issue.

The Prison Service also commissioned a pilot to evaluate the use of body-worn cameras to prevent violence and assist in the management of disruptive prisoners.

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