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Prisons row threatening to boil over as relations deteriorate

By Deborah McAleese

Tensions within Northern Ireland’s jails are at boiling point as deteriorating relations between prison bosses and staff have begun to affect prisoners’ daily regime.

Head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service Robin Masefield has warned that a work-to-rule policy adopted by prison guards following a major fallout with management over disciplinary procedures “is disrupting the safe and secure running of the prison establishment”.

Maghaberry Prison, the province’s largest jail, is experiencing the most disruption and frustrations among prisoners over their restricted regime which is creating an increasingly volatile environment, leading to concerns that inmates are planning to riot.

Prison bosses are attempting to avert chaos within the jail and earlier this week enforced a lock-down, confining prisoners to their cells to prevent serious disturbances. It is understood the lock-down was implemented when a prisoner was taken hostage by a number of inmates who put a ligature around his neck and threatened to hang him.

A prison source said: “It is close to boiling point in here and could kick off at any time.”

Mr Masefield said the dispute is having a “significant impact on the operation in each of the establishments” including:

  • taking longer to unlock cells in the morning;
  • a reduction in exercise and workshop time;
  • delays in visiting times;
  • restricted access to tuck-shop;
  • delays in transferring inmates to court.

The dispute centres around disciplinary action taken against a number of officers following the suicide of life sentence prisoner Colin Bell in Maghaberry in 2008.

The Prison Officers Association (POA) called for an independent review of the Prison Service’s code of conduct and discipline in the case and said the findings show that the Prison Service had not followed proper procedures.

The Prison Service says it has made “a raft of concessions” to the POA to try and resolve the dispute, however the POA says management has failed to allow members “access to natural justice”.

With no end in sight to the stalemate it is understood the Prison Service has drawn up contingency arrangements should the disruption get worse.

“This is having a totally unacceptable impact on the prisoners and their families. The POA are continuing to operate in a manner which is restricting the regime available to prisoners and which has in recent days resulted in disruption. This is having an adverse impact on prisoners and on their families. We urge the POA to end this action and return to discussions with management,” said Mr Masefield.

However, Finlay Spratt of the POA said association members are not responsible for any disruption to the regime, but are simply working to their terms and conditions.

“We decided to work to our terms and conditions because this is about the right to be treated fairly,” he said.

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