Reopened hostel will have 84 cameras to monitor offenders... but is it enough to calm fears?
Tight security measures have been installed at a controversial hostel for convicted criminals in a bid to ensure high levels of safety for the community.
Thompson House in north Belfast, renovated at a cost of £2m, will accommodate 19 ex-prisoners when it officially re-opens next week.
The Antrim Road centre, which is run by the Presbyterian Church, offers accommodation to men leaving prison, and has faced major opposition from the public.
Former prisoners to be housed there are from various categories, — including convicted sex attackers and murderers.
The hostel’s reopening has caused significant concern in the surrounding area because of its close proximity to several schools, nurseries and playgrounds. Authorities yesterday opened Thompson House’s doors to the media to showcase the new hi-tech system they claim will help keep the community safe.
The new system involves 84 cameras — an increase from the previous four — to cover every part of the building. There are no cameras, however, in bedrooms.
Entry and exit to the building is by ‘air-locked’ doors with residents and visitors having to sign in and out. Doors and windows are alarmed to monitor opening and closing. And a key fob system has been installed to allow people entering and leaving the building to be monitored and logged.
Alongside the new technology, residents will also be strictly monitored, with five room checks a day and drug and alcohol testing.
Nine permanent members of staff, including additional relief, will be based at the site, with at least two staff on duty at night.
The Public Protection Arrangements Northern Ireland (PPANI) is an umbrella agency which manages issues surrounding the handling of perpetrators of sexual and violent crimes.
It said dedicated offender accommodation ensures better management of risk assessment plans and is a significant factor in preventing reoffending.
But protest group Residents Against Sex Offenders is campaigning for all sex offenders in Northern Ireland to be removed from residential areas.
David Farrow, manager of Thompson House, said that while he understood the public’s concern, the new system should be a reassurance.
“We do five room checks a day, so if we can’t find someone we check the fob system to see where they are. Any breach of that will lead to the police being contacted.”
He explained that strict curfews will still apply to sex offenders residing at the hostel.
“They would not be allowed out before 9.30am, and between 2pm and 4pm when the schools are coming home,” he said.
Some offenders will only be permitted to leave the hostel with a member of staff.
Lindsay Conway, director of social service for the Presbyterian Church, said local politicians were invited to tour the premises, but none were able to attend.
Schools and residents’ groups that have voiced concerns have also been invited to tour the centre before it reopens.
“I’m confident that we have built everything we can to make this work and we are keen to involve the community and our stakeholders,” he said.