Northern Ireland Prison Service sees sharp drop in number of warders
Concerns have been raised about prison staffing after it emerged the workforce had dropped significantly in the last two years.
The number of posts fell from 1,697 in 2015 to the current total of 1,454.
This includes a reduction in operational staff of more than 7% in that time.
It comes as figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph show 73 warders had left the job in the first eight months of this year.
Of these, 32 took medical retirement and seven were dismissed.
Other reasons recorded for leaving included 28 resignations and six retirements.
The figures were released after a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper.
UUP MLA Doug Beattie said the retention of staff and conditions of working were key issues.
"Some of it is what you would expect in any large employer base where people will come and go," he said.
"But in that period of time, for 73 to leave... it tells me that there are huge retention issues within the Prison Service."
The Prison Service said it was working to bolster its numbers, with plans to have 120 new officers in place in the coming months, on top of a fresh intake already this year.
The current 1,454 workforce includes 1,198 operational staff and 256 working in admin.
This compares to the 2015 breakdown of 1,291 operational staff and 406 in admin - a total of 1,697.
The overall number has dropped by 14.3% since 2015.
In the past five years 1,089 officers left the Prison Service -including 212 who cited medical retirement.
Voluntary redundancy accounted for 574 departures, while 202 resigned and 26 were dismissed.
Other reasons included retirement (31), transfer (43) and the end of temporary contract (one).
The biggest exodus was in 2012 and 2013, where voluntary redundancy accounted for 218 and 274 respectively.
The highest number of resignations came in 2014, with 55, while the highest number of medical retirements was 70 in 2015.
Northern Ireland's prison system has been under strain in recent years and its jails subject to damning reports.
In January it was revealed that nearly 80 warders were attacked in 2016.
In March 2016 prison officer Adrian Ismay died from a heart attack 11 days after a bomb planted by dissident republicans exploded under his van.
Mr Beattie said many officers took a career decision to leave the Prison Service.
"I know there are people who join the Prison Service as a stepping service to the police service and I know that's a real issue and I know some of these people will have left because having arrived at the Prison Service the regime will not have suited them," he added.
"And there are some who leave because they do not feel valued because their pay and their conditions are not what you would expect.
"I am concerned, I think it always puts the Prison Service on the back foot. If you imagine a bucket with a hole in the bottom, if they are continuing to try and fill that bucket and the hole is getting bigger and bigger then they will get absolutely nowhere."
He added: "But that isn't to say that the Prison Service aren't trying to change, I just think they have such an uphill task."
The Prison Service said: "People leave the Prison Service for a number of reasons, with the vast majority retiring.
"The Prison Service regularly recruits and launched a major recruitment drive earlier this year. While working in prisons can be challenging, new recruits undergo an extensive nine-week training course and all staff are supported through Staff Welfare, Inspire and the Police Rehabilitation and Retraining Trust.
"A number of applicants are at interview stage, with plans to bring in 120 new officers by the end of March, this is in addition to the 70 new staff appointed this year."