Prison officers clock up £9.4m overtime bill to shore up staffing levels
Overtime payments to prison officers in Northern Ireland have topped £9.4 million during the last three financial years.
New figures show huge sums are being spent every month to bolster staffing levels at the region's four main jails.
Critics claim the money would be better spent recruiting additional staff, but the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) has argued it is necessary to meet the demands of a 24/7 operation.
The highest overtime payments were made by bosses at HMP Maghaberry, which houses some of the most dangerous criminals and has segregated wings for paramilitary inmates.
Between April 2012 and March 2015, £6.15m was spent on overtime at the high-security jail which employs 623 prison officers.
During the same period, a further £1.7m was paid out in overtime at Magilligan Prison in Co Londonderry, which has 276 prison officers.
At Hydebank Wood in Belfast, where young offenders and female prisoners are locked up, and 175 prison officers work, overtime payments totalled more than £1.5m.
Finlay Spratt, chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, said: "They should be employing the right number of staff rather than relying on overtime because if you rely on overtime, then you get burn-out, but this is the way the service is being run."
He said the prison service was operating with at least 100 fewer officers than required, and turnover among new recruits was high. Hundreds of experienced officers have also left through a voluntary redundancy scheme in recent years.
Last year inspectors branded Maghaberry the most dangerous prison in the UK, describing conditions as "Dickensian". A follow-up inspection found the unsafe and unstable regime had stabilised, but still fell a long way short of required safety standards. The figures were provided following a Freedom of Information request from the Press Association.
DUP MLA Edwin Poots, who sits on Stormont's justice scrutiny committee, said he was not surprised by the level of overtime spend.
He added: "All the indications are that the service has been too reliant on overtime, largely down to the fact that they did not recruit - despite requests from two prison governors at Maghaberry. It seems that the prison service headquarters have refused, or failed, to go and recruit staff to do the job."
A Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) spokesman said: "There are times when overtime is required to meet the operational need of prisons and it is an aspect of running a 24/7 service. Overtime provides a degree of flexibility that can be used to ensure that an effective regime is provided for prisoners and to cover unpredictable pressures.
"NIPS has regularly been recruiting since 2012 with job opportunities in the service advertised in 2012, 2013 and 2015. Since March 2015, NIPS has run external recruitment campaigns for Prisoner Custody Officers (PCO), Night Custody Officers (NCO) and Custody Prison Officers (CPO). Recruitment interviews are ongoing for all these opportunities with new recruits to begin training in early April 2016."