Belfast Telegraph

Damning indictment of Northern Ireland prison system

By Adrian Rutherford

Prison unions are on a collision course with Justice Minister David Ford over radical plans to reform Northern Ireland’s failing jails.

Yesterday a damning report warned “fundamental change” of the system was needed, branding the current regime ineffective, demoralised and dysfunctional.

A redundancy package is to be introduced which could see up to 500 officers losing their jobs.

The report recommends radical reform, including efficiency savings and a move away from a “security-led staff culture”.

But last night the plans came under fire from the Prison Officers’ Association, which warned that any relaxation in security would be a huge mistake.

Its chairman Finlay Spratt said: “If we stand back and allow this to happen, it will end up with prisoners in charge of the prison.

“We believe prison officers should be in control, unlike the people writing these reports.” The report was compiled by a review team led by Dame Anne Owers, former Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales.

It was set up in July by Mr Ford to focus initially on Maghaberry Prison, but this was extended to include the entire prison service.

The 85-page report highlights the absence of effective leadership and operational management in Ulster’s prisons, and criticises a security-led culture which, it adds, seeks to avoid rather than confront difficult issues. It adds that staff are demoralised and “managers unable to manage”.

The report also criticises staffing levels, and a “top-heavy” management.

It calls for a major programme of change including a review of staffing numbers and a “less restrictive regime”.

Mr Spratt said that while he welcomed some proposals, any reduction in security was wrong.

“Yes, there are things that need fixed, I acknowledge that, but not to the extent they are talking about. It will mean a Northern Ireland Prison Service run by the inmates. The lunatics will be left in charge of the asylum.”

Dame Owers said the prison system here was at a critical stage.

“We found it had become demoralised and dysfunctional, resigned to bad Press and routine criticism, and this was affecting even the good staff and managers we spoke to,” she said.

This report, she added, provides a chance for a new start.

“Critical moments are also moments of opportunity. “There is evidence of a change in mood and a recognition that things need to change — but no-one should be in any doubt about the scale of change required and the commitment this will require at all levels, including at political level.

“Devolution provides the opportunity, and the necessity, for the Prison Service to rise to the challenge.”

Mr Ford told the Assembly yesterday that the case for fundamental reform cannot be avoided.

“While this report will make uncomfortable reading for many, it once again makes the compelling case that the prison service has to change,” he said.

Prison service director general Colin McConnell said it is a critical time for the organisation.

“This interim report recognises and confirms the many difficulties that managers, staff and offenders have to deal with on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Background

The prison review team was established in July 2010 to conduct a review of jails here, looking at conditions of detention, management and oversight. The team comprised Dame Anne Owers, previously Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales; former Deputy Chief Constable Paul Leighton; and Clodach McGrory, a barrister and former human rights commissioner. It also included Fergus McNeill, a professor of criminology and social work at Glasgow University, and Phil Wheatley, previously director general of the National Offender Management Service for England and Wales. A second report by the team is due out later this year

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