Recruits' graduation heralds new era for Prison Service
The last batch of more than 300 new recruits to join the prison service in Northern Ireland under a major reform programme have completed their initial training and will start working on the wings next week.
The final class of trainee custody officers graduated at a ceremony at the Northern Ireland Prison Service College in Millisle, Co Down, yesterday afternoon.
They enter service during a period of radical transition within the service, which has seen almost 450 experienced officers leave with early retirement packages in less than 18 months.
The re-composition of the workforce mirrors past policing reforms, which saw many RUC officers leave to make way for a new generation of PSNI personnel.
The prison service has recruited 307 new custody officers in a bid to transform the traditional make-up of the workforce, although chiefs have expressed disappointment at the limited number of new applications from the Catholic community.
As well as the new-starts, around 70 prisoner escorting and court custody staff (Peccs) are also being trained ahead of transferring to the custody officer grade.
While the total bill for the early retirement payouts is in the region of £70m, the prison service insists the long-term savings will be much greater, as many of the most highly paid officers are being replaced by younger staff members on different pay scales.
Justice Minister David Ford paid tribute to the "commitment and dedication" of the new recruits.
He added: "The Prison Service is presently on a pathway of fundamental change and I have been impressed by the calibre of the new recruits."