Prison officers suffering from mental health conditions are being treated "appallingly", with threats of disciplinary action if they do not return to work, an Ulster Unionist MLA has claimed.
Doug Beattie, the UUP's justice spokesman, said that of 345 written warnings handed out to civil servants within the Department of Justice (DoJ) over the past three years, a total of 205 were issued to the NI Prison Service, with 203 of those recipients prison officers.
"That is a staggering figure which means that over 60% of written warnings are issued to the Prison Service although they only make up a third of all those who work for DoJ," said Mr Beattie.
The MLA, who obtained the details through a Freedom of Information request, said he had recently raised the case of a prison officer who had been given a written warning despite being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The warning went to an appeal and was overturned.
"However, since then I have received numerous emails and telephone calls from serving and former prison officers who also received a written warning for being off work due to a mental health illness, ranging from stress to PTSD," said Mr Beattie.
"One female officer was actually told she would be discharged if she did not return to work.
"This is appalling treatment of those with a mental health illness within our Prison Service.
"These are individuals who do an incredibly stressful and dangerous role in order to keep us safe."
Mr Beattie claimed it was clear there was an issue with workforce management within the Department of Justice, and that the NI Civil Service Human Resources - part of the Department of Finance - seemed to be targeting the Prison Service as part of their inefficiency absence policy.
"It is clear to me, if not to those who make and implement policy, that prison officers are being forced to continue to work even when suffering mental health issues for fear of disciplinary action. This cannot continue and it is time for an independent look at mental health within the Prison Service with a view to understanding it better and removing the threat of disciplinary action if someone is suffering a mental health illness and needs to take time off," he said.
Mr Beattie alleged: "This is a pattern of internal discrimination that cannot be ignored by the Justice Minister, who should be supporting her workforce, or the Finance Minister who should be ensuring policies are delivered in a fair and justified manner."
The DoJ said that following consultation with minister Naomi Long, the director general of the Prison Service has written to Mr Beattie inviting him to discuss the issues.
"While the management of absence from work is sensitive and challenging, this is done on an individual case by case basis and there are a range of support services in place as part of our prisons well programme, which includes mental health resilience training," it added.
The Department of Finance said: "The mental health of all staff is taken very seriously.
"A range of support services are available including a welfare service, a 24-hour counselling service, and an early intervention approach to managing stress.
"When a written warning is issued for absence this is done in line with the NICS sickness absence inefficiency policy.
"When a warning is issued every individual has the right of appeal to an appointed appeal officer who was not previously involved with the decision to issue the warning. New medical or other relevant evidence may be presented at appeal, following which a decision is made by the appeal officer."