Editor's Viewpoint: Ford cannot falter on prison reform
The authors of a report into Northern Ireland's prison service didn't hold back on their criticism. Jails here were described as dysfunctional and ineffective, staff were said to be demoralised and changes recommended earlier are being implemented with glacial slowness. And in a very percipient comment said they feared that their review would result in a report but no fundamental change to the system. That is a fear that is widely shared as the prison service has been the focus of several damning reports with little evidence of any effective remedial action.
And, as if to underline those fears, the initial reaction of Justice Minister David Ford was to warn that implementing the changes outlined in the report could take years. That, to put it mildly, is a disappointing comment. Mr Ford, like everyone else, knows that the system needs reform. He knows that the jails are too expensive - it costs more in Northern Ireland to keep someone in prison than in any other part of the UK. He is well aware that some of the institutions are not fit for purpose and offer little in the way of remedial activity for prisoners.
The reforms outlined in the report could lead to around 600 - about one third of the total - prison officers being made redundant. Staff attitudes - many officers served when the jails were full of paramilitary prisoners - have changed little even after the peace process and it is felt that radical reforms are required to modernise the service. Some prison officers paid with their lives for working in what were once the most dangerous jails in western Europe and those sacrifices should never be forgotten.
However the time for prevarication and stalling is now over. The failings in the system and the possible remedies have been set out clearly and should be implemented with due alacrity. David Ford demonstrated during his showdown with lawyers over legal aid that he has the stomach to implement unpopular, but justified, measures. He should show the same willingness on this issue.