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Naomi Long reviews support for prison officers suffering stress after sick days row

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Initiative: Naomi Long

Initiative: Naomi Long

Initiative: Naomi Long

Current measures in place to support prison officers experiencing workplace-related stress will be subject to a review launched by the Justice Minister.

The announcement by Naomi Long comes after a sanction against a prison officer who took time off work for mental health reasons was lifted last month.

The issue was first highlighted by Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie in this newspaper.

Mr Beattie criticised the decision to give the officer suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder a written warning for absence.

He said the warder had taken time off for stress, but was given the punishment after a return to work interview.

The UUP justice spokesman welcomed the decision by the authorities to rescind the warning, but added: "If ministers are not willing to fight for their workforce then who is?"

More than 200 prison officers have received warnings about work absence in recent years, according to figures provided to Mr Beattie.

According to a breakdown of written warnings issued in the past three years by the Department of Finance, which is responsible for employment issues involving staff, out of a total of 349 warnings to civil servants, 203 related to prison officers, the BBC reported.

The figures prompted Mr Beattie to claim they were "disproportionately high". The Department of Justice had previously said the issue was "sensitive and challenging".

The Justice Minister said the commissioned review will examine if more can be done to address the issues faced by prison officers.

"I am acutely aware of the challenging and unique role played by prison officers in Northern Ireland," she said.

"They do outstanding work day and daily, which is why on each of my visits to our prisons I took the time to speak to them about how they were feeling and about what support was available to them."

Mrs Long stressed that as well as engaging with prison governors and the service's director general, she had "listened carefully" to Mr Beattie and fellow MLA Chris Lyttle, who earlier this year welcomed a health and wellbeing review for services provided to ex-prison officers.

Emphasising that the service has initiatives such as the Prisonswell Programme to "support, prevent, assist and inform front line officers", it is important to know if more can be done, she added.

"Consequently, it is my intention to commission a focused review of the support mechanisms and procedures the Prison Service has in place to ascertain if there is more we could or should be doing to help our front line staff," she said. "I recognise that it is important that we take appropriate action whilst balancing the need to exercise a rigorous, sensitive and proportionate approach to reducing sick absence.

"The NI Prison Service has changed greatly in recent years and positive relationships between staff and those in their care has been at the heart of that.

"Prison services in other jurisdictions are now looking at Northern Ireland as an exemplar of best practice.

"Recent inspection reports speak for themselves, with our prisons now assessed as much safer places and a reduction in the number of assaults on staff and in self-harm incidents.

"Just this week the inspection report published in relation to Hydebank Wood Secure College and Women's Prison reflected on 'the remarkable change' that has taken place there.

"I want again to pay tribute to all Prison Service staff for what they have achieved. I very much value their work and I want to, through this review, ensure they are receiving the support they need."

Belfast Telegraph