Jail full body search rules eased
Rules on conducting full body searches of dissident republican prisoners in Northern Ireland have been eased in some circumstances as part of the "normalisation" of security arrangements in jail, the authorities said.
Staff are still under serious threat following the murder of warder David Black in 2012, the Prison Service said.
Maghaberry Prison in Co Antrim holds inmates affiliated to armed groups opposed to the peace process in closely guarded separated units, with tight restrictions on movement and measures to detect hidden guns or communications equipment.
But a review found that the requirement for random full body searching on the way to visits had been eased following a lengthy "dirty protest", a tactic used by IRA prisoners in 1970s and early 1980s. Inmates are no longer routinely subjected to the precautionary procedure when leaving prison on final discharge or home leave, the Prison Service confirmed.
Director general Sue McAllister said: "This is not about relinquishing control to any prisoners but it is about having proportionate security.
"This is about building a conflict-free environment within a high security prison with prisoners who are separated from the general population."
She added: "We are not relaxing security, what we are prepared to do is to move to normalising the arrangements for the movement of prisoners."
A total of 43 republican prisoners are held separately from the rest of the prison, a situation unique to Northern Ireland following a campaign by inmates who view themselves as political prisoners in the same way as IRA members did during the 30-year conflict.
Tensions at Maghaberry between warders and inmates have simmered for years and were dramatically escalated after experienced warder Mr Black was gunned down by a group calling itself the IRA while he drove to work in 2012.
He was one of a number of security force victims since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which largely ended violence.
Ongoing abuse of prison staff has included the sending of two viable parcel bombs to named staff, the necessity for several to relocate their homes and threats on social media made against named officers.
Prisoners have engaged in months of protest against their conditions of detention, particularly full body strip searching which the authorities believe is necessary to detect weapons.
In an effort to improve the atmosphere, in August 2010, a deal was reached. An independent assessment team including a former senior Northern Ireland Office official and a leading trade unionist carried out a stock take of the 2010 accord and said the murder of Mr Black was the most egregious breach of the principles underpinning it.
It said: "The agreement has been unable to realise its full potential, partly because of bedding in problems arising from the lack of trust between Northern Ireland Prison Service and republican prisoners and because of understandable concerns about staff security."
In 1983 the biggest breakout in UK history in Northern Ireland saw 38 IRA prisoners escape.
Today, if inmates are moving from one secure location to another using vans, or being taken to hospital, the Prison Service said it had a duty to ensure public protection through thorough screening, balanced against discretion for those with serious medical conditions.
A new search facility has been installed and the requirement for random full body searching on the way to visits and video link court appearances has been eased. No "rub down" searches are carried out within part of Roe House and the dedicated search team has been removed, the review said.
The service said it was reviewing the issue of full body searching but technology did not exist to do away with the practice. Its response to the review said it will investigate the potential of a new threat detector.
Prisoners continue to have concerns about the technique, restrictions on controlled movement and the limited scope for education, according to the review.
The service is committed to increasing the number of prisoners on shared landings up to a maximum of six.
It said: "This commitment is dependent on the prisoners acting in good faith and refraining from actions that might prevent staff carrying out their work professionally and free from harm, intimidation and threat, but NIPS would be willing to move initially to four per landing to show their commitment to the process."
Prisoners have also highlighted concerns which were not part of the 2010 agreement, according to the review.
These surrounded the eligibility criteria for entry to separated accommodation, the "isolation" of certain prisoners in protective custody, claims of restrictions on family visiting areas and having to "double up" in cells designed for one person.
The service has acted to improve visiting arrangements, Mrs McAllister said.
"We are not making this up, we are doing things that we know work, with a number of outside organisations.
"Where we think there is a risk we will remain clear that we have to conduct those full body searches but we have moved on to a more risk-based approach rather than a blanket approach."