Belfast Telegraph

Delays hit prison service college

The new wave of prison service recruits should have been passing out at a multimillion-pound state-of-the-art training college, but delays and disruption mean the first brick of the proposed facility has yet to be laid.

Originally due for completion in 2008, the latest anticipated finish date for the police, fire and prison officers college at Desertcreat in Co Tyrone is mid-2016.

By that stage the reshaping of the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) will be all but complete. Almost 400 new custody officers who are replacing, en masse, an older generation of staff will be fully qualified without having ever set foot in the facility designed to train them.

The last class of recruits undertook their initial training at the old Prison Service college in Millisle, Co Down, as the latest controversy to rock the Desertcreat project rumbled on.

Designers found themselves on the end of fierce criticism after it emerged that the initial £100 million projected cost had spiralled to £137 million.

The senior police officer leading the project - PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie - has since told an Assembly committee that the overspend has been clawed back to £18 million.

A revised plan has had to be re-submitted to the two Stormont ministers with responsibility for the scheme - Health and Public Safety Minister Edwin Poots and Justice Minister David Ford - for sign off. Presuming the blueprints are approved and the signatures obtained, it will then be forwarded to the Department of Finance for final scrutiny. Once those stages are completed, a preferred bidder to carry out the work will be appointed.

The original plan envisaged a complex incorporating huge outdoor and indoor practical training facilities, including a mock-up prison, fire station and urban town streets.

There were also plans for a specially made lake to simulate maritime emergencies and a state-of-the-art search and rescue facility with part of a ship's hull built into its roof to allow airlifts to be practised.

Work is eventually set to begin at Desertcreat by the end of the year. Whether it does will largely depend on the avoidance of further problems.

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