Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Reform of prison service inevitable

It is evident, and inevitable, that Northern Ireland's Prison Service will undergo a radical reform.

Already it has been confirmed that up to 500 prison officers could be made redundant as part of the change, and that, in spite of what will probably be generous severance packages, will be a big blow to the local economy at a time of retrenchment in both the public and private sectors.

However it is not an unexpected move given the highly critical reports into the Prison Service here in recent times.

We have a service which in terms of structure, size and culture is living in the past when the province's jails were largely occupied by convicted and suspected terrorists.

There are more prison officers than prisoners and the cost of keeping someone in jail here - at £95,000 per year - is double the figure in England, Scotland and Wales.

That, clearly, is unsustainable at a time of draconian public spending cuts.

Ironically even with the huge staffing levels, a third prisoner has been mistakenly released early, much to the embarrassment of Justice Minister David Ford who has called for a root and branch reform of the service. Post conflict changes recommended by Chris Patten were implemented to reform the police service and make it more acceptable, with far-reaching and positive results. A similar Patten-like exercise is required for the prison service.

There is already a wealth of evidence of what is wrong and the report of a review team led by the highly experienced Dame Ann Owers is due within the next couple of months.

Its recommendations are expected to be sweeping and there should be no stalling on implementing the type of reform needed to create, in David Ford's words, a service fit for purpose.

Of course we must not forget the sacrifices made by prison officers in the past and the dangers they faced - and still do from dissident republicans. However the demands on the service have changed and the service has not kept pace.

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