Prison chief vows to tackle drugs
Tackling the scourge of drugs is still a key priority, the head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service has said.
Sue McAllister told Stormont's justice committee that new measures had been put in place to deal with the abuse of illicit drugs and prescription medication by inmates at institutions across the region.
"This is a big priority," she said. "This is a key priority for us, to address the drugs issue."
Ms McAllister also revealed that a pilot scheme to reduce the supply, demand and harm caused by drugs was being launched at Maghaberry jail in Co Antrim where t he death of two prisoners has been linked to the availability of illegal and prescription medication.
The Prison Service senior management team was at Stormont to update members on a package of reforms which are at the halfway stage.
Paul Cawkwell, director of offender policy and operations with Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), said t he switch from "ineffective" random testing and searches to intelligence-led operations was expected to cut the drugs problem.
He said establishments had also been set improvement targets to reduce the likelihood of contraband coming in.
"It is fair to say as with any prison in arguably any jurisdiction there is an underlying drug problem. But, I don't think that will come as any shock to anybody," said Mr Cawkwell.
Although he was unable to disclose the percentage of prisoners who had tested positive for banned substances, Mr Cawkwell said he would provide data at a later stage.
The committee also heard that industrial relations between prison chiefs and the trade unions representing frontline staff had been strained and that last month goodwill had been withdrawn by staff at Hydebank Wood, which was the subject of a damning inspection report.
The Criminal Justice Inspectorate blamed the lack of leadership for the poor performance and made 156 recommendations for improvement at the facility, which was without a governor for about a year.
Ms McAllister said the appointment of a new governor and deputy in April had been a significant step forward.
"I can assure that where recommendations have not been addressed since the inspection in February when the inspection was carried out, they will be," she said.
Meanwhile, it was revealed that 457 people had left the Prison Service under the £60 million voluntary redundancy scheme announced in 2011. An estimated 34 staff are expected to leave by the end of this month with the departure of 35 others due by the end of the year.
NIPS is also seeking funding to let a further 28 people go early next year.
DUP MLA Paul Givan, who chairs the justice committee, said those who had signed up to the scheme had "mentally left the service a number of years ago".