Planned budget cuts could have a "detrimental impact" on Prison Service staff and inmates, it has been warned.
The Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) is facing a funding cut of £2.1m under the Finance Minister's draft budget, prompting fears over reduced staffing levels, accommodation issues and the provision of rehabilitation services.
According to Justice Minister Naomi Long, the NIPS had an opening baseline budget of £106.2m for the 2021/22 financial year, with the draft budget meaning a 2% cut to the opening baseline budget for 2022/23 - a reduction in real terms of £2.1m.
The NIPS estimates it will need £116.4m in 2022/23 to meet anticipated costs and pressures.
Responding to an Assembly question, Mrs Long said: "NIPS is currently considering the implications of reducing staffing levels, rationalising accommodation and reducing the provision of rehabilitative services.
"The implications of having fewer staff managing an increasing prison population in overcrowded conditions will undoubtedly have a detrimental impact for both staff and those in the care of the Prison Service and will reverse much of the progress NIPS has made in recent years."
It recently emerged the Department of Justice (DoJ) returned £47m in funding since the beginning of the last financial year.
DUP MLA Mervyn Storey, chair of Stormont's Justice Committee, said, given that 70% of NIPS funding relates to staffing, it seems "inevitable" that workforce levels will suffer, which is "neither fair nor sustainable".
"The fact that NIPS is weighing up whether to hit the pause button on crucial rehabilitative services is worrying. This could have knock-on-effect for other service providers and reverse recent progress in outcomes for prisoners and standards across the NIPS estate," he added.
"It is not enough for the Justice Minister to simply recognise these challenges. The fact that millions of pounds have been returned from the Department since the start of the financial year is unfathomable and unacceptable.”
The DOJ said the Justice Minister has said the draft budget would be damaging to the fabric of the justice system because of the pre-existing pressures faced, the cuts being inflicted and lack of Covid recovery funding.
“It will be a matter for all five parties in the Executive to decide the final budget outcome, not the Justice Minister alone, and Minister has made the consequences of the current draft explicit to Executive colleagues," the DoJ said.