New Justice Minister, David Ford, faces a big test following the recommendation from the Billy Wright inquiry team for sweeping Patten-style reform of the prison service in Northern Ireland.
The report into the killing of the loyalist godfather in the Maze Prison identified a number of serious |deficiencies in the way the jail was run.
This cannot simply be dismissed as an example of historical malpractice. A series of reports in |recent years have highlighted major problems at the province’s high-security prison, Maghaberry. One report last year made an astonishing 200 |recommendations — including 76 outstanding from a previous scrutiny of the jail — on how to improve its performance. In spite of being one of the most expensive prisons in the UK, it was found to be significantly under-performing in relation to what is expected of a modern and effective jail.
Of course, one cannot view the performance of the prison service in isolation. Prison officers were dealing with huge numbers of determined |terrorists during the Troubles and were under threat both at work and at home. Indeed, it must be remembered that 29 officers, some of them |senior, were killed during the conflict. The officers’ devotion to duty under enormous stress reflects great credit on them and the service.
What Mr Ford has now to decide is how to make the Prison Service more in tune with the demands of a post-conflict society.
A sweeping root-and-branch reform, like that of the RUC, is neither likely nor wholly desirable.
Yet the old prison culture dating from the days of the Troubles must be dispelled and more modern methods of dealing with prisoners implemented, critically in the area of prisoner safety.
Mr Ford must take last year’s recommendations for Maghaberry on board and see what can be |implement throughout the system. And all political parties should join with him in drafting a cohesive plan of action, unlike some nationalists who are |already jumping on an opportunist bandwagon |to discredit the service entirely.