Belfast Telegraph

We’re not locked in crisis: prisons chief

By Adrian Rutherford

Northern Ireland’s failing prison system faces a once in a generation opportunity to reform, its new director general has warned.

In his first major interview since being appointed, Colin McConnell admitted the Prison Service is ineffective and inefficient — but denied it was in crisis.

Speaking in the wake of another highly critical report, he admitted it is at a crossroads and requires “thorough reform” to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Earlier this month a review team chaired by Dame Anne Owers concluded the Northern Ireland prison system was “demoralised and dysfunctional”.

In the hard-hitting report it was claimed the service lacked leadership, was outdated and was failing to do enough to rehabilitate offenders.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr McConnell:

  • Admitted our prison service is rooted in the past.
  • Warned it is “facing a mountain to climb”.
  • Insisted he will not be dictated to by the Prison Officers’ Association, which has rejected much of the review report.

Mr McConnell was appointed director general in January, taking over from Robin Masefield.

He takes charge in the aftermath of some damning reports by the Northern Ireland Prisons’ Ombudsman, Pauline McCabe, and the Criminal Justice Inspectorate, which described industrial relations as “destructive”.

But Mr McConnell refuses to accept the system is a shambles.

“It’s not a term I would use,” he added.

“The Prison Service is stuck in time. At one time some might say it delivered a great service, but very much based on the need to provide secure containment in our very troubled society.

“Northern Ireland is moving quickly beyond that, and the Prison Service has to respond.

“I think this is a once in a generation opportunity for the service to respond to the political will and demand of a changing community that this organisation changes — quickly and appropriately.”

But he admits it will not be easy, adding: “As far as reform goes, the Prison Service here has a mountain to climb.”

With a budget of £131m, Mr McConnell will be expected to make savings of £39m over the next four years.

Profile

Colin McConnell has previously worked in the Scottish and English/Welsh prison services.

He started as a prison officer before moving through the operational management ranks. More recently, Mr McConnell served as director of operations with the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

He is married with five children and his annual salary is £100,000.

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