Prison officers agree to reforms
Prison officers have agreed to reforms intended to overhaul the much-criticised service.
The introduction of new staff and simplification of the management structure are among changes accepted by the Prison Officers' Association (POA), Justice Minister David Ford told the Assembly.
A review report published in February last year said despite high costs, the Northern Ireland Prison Service was dysfunctional, demoralised and ineffective.
Mr Ford said: "I am confident that the journey of reform has begun, real progress is being made and momentum is building. While challenges remain, with the support of this Assembly this reform process is, I believe, unstoppable."
Last year Dame Anne Owers and her review team said fundamental change was needed, including a redundancy scheme for prison officers.
Concerns have also been expressed by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate and the Prisons Ombudsman and surrounded deaths in custody, healthcare and the emphasis placed on security. Director general of the Prison Service Colin McConnell is leaving in May after just over a year in the job.
An early retirement scheme will see 151 staff leave the service at the end of this month, replaced by newly recruited custody officers by the end of this year. The recruitment campaign for the new custody officers was launched last month, with nearly 5,000 applications received.
Last year Mr Ford said the changes will generate savings of £180 million over the next 10 years.
He told the Assembly: "At the outset I made clear that change was not something I wanted to do to our staff but rather our objective was to bring about reform working with them.
"It is therefore encouraging to announce today that after several months of detailed and painstaking negotiations, the Prison Service and the Prison Officers' Association have agreed in principle a way forward."