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Minister warns over Northern Ireland prisons

Vital changes to overhaul Northern Ireland's failing prison service could take years to implement, the Justice Minister has warned.

But the authors of an independent report recommending the radical reforms insist the next six months are "crucial" in transforming the province's jails they criticised as "dysfunctional and ineffective".

Published yesterday by a review team headed by Dame Anne Owens, the document gave 40 recommendations on how to turn around a prison service described in February as "demoralised".

Among the key recommendations were that Maghaberry Prison should be divided into three 'mini-prisons', under-18s should not be held at Hydebank Wood and alternatives to prison for fine default should be in place by 2013. Another recommendation was for new working patterns for staff to be established within six months.

The review team found that equality and diversity work is significantly underdeveloped.

The Young Offender Centre at Hydebank Wood was described as being in the "worst shape" and "extremely short of staff, exacerbated by 10% sickness levels".

It also highlighted frustration among staff because of the lack of development since the last damning interim report.

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According to the review team, staff supportive of change described the last seven months as like "wading through treacle" or as a "phoney war".

It is currently estimated each prisoner costs the taxpayer more than £75,000 per year to maintain and there are more than 1,700 prisoners.

Up to 600 of the current 1,800 prison officers will be offered redundancy deals as part of the review.

The package is expected to cost £14m.

The authors of the report said there were fears the review, like others, will result in no fundamental change.

"Though the transformation we envisage will take time to complete, there is an urgent need to show that its foundations are securely in place," it said.

"The next six months will be crucial."

Amid the latest criticism, Justice Minister David Ford (left), who accepted the findings, promised fundamental change - but warned it could take years to be adopted.

"End-to-end reform of the prison service cannot be achieved overnight and it has taken time to put in place the solid foundations on which to move forward," he said.

"It is therefore vital that we get the process right to ensure change is not only delivered but is embedded across every aspect of the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

"Since the publication of the interim report, management have made progress in a number of areas. A process of negotiation has also commenced with the Prison Officers' Association and Prison Governors' Association."

The director general of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, Colin McConnell, said: "The starting point with any reform programme on this scale must be stripping everything back and getting back to the basics of providing safe, decent and secure custody for those offenders placed by the courts in our care," he said.

Chief executive of the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO), Olwen Lyner, said it was "a one-off opportunity" to re-shape the role of prisons within the justice system.

"There can be no doubt after today's Assembly debate that our politicians feel strongly about the issues raised, but they now need to turn that energy into a clear commitment to considering carefully how best this review can be implemented," she said.

Prison Ombudsman Patricia McCabe said a "fully integrated approach" between all departments was needed.

"The report cannot be viewed as a wish list that can be cherry-picked." she said.

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