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Justice Minister: reform of our jails is my top priority

Northern Ireland’s new Justice Minister David Ford yesterday outlined plans to perform a review of jails starting at the widely criticised Maghaberry prison.

Mr Ford told the new committee for justice he would prioritise prison reform and work with other departments to develop a justice system that has the confidence of people in Northern Ireland.

Speaking to the Executive Committee, he said: “Justice agencies will have a key role to play in helping to build a shared future in which everyone feels safe, and devolution provides a real opportunity for us to shape a justice system that meets local needs.”

In a letter to the First and Deputy First Ministers, Mr Ford outlined his plans for a rolling review of the jail system on a prison by prison basis, starting with a review of Maghaberry.

He told the justice committee: “The recent Pearson Audit Report stressed the importance of developing the regime at Maghaberry for all prisoners there, and I am keen to ensure current progress is substantially built upon.”

The Pearson review of the prison in July 2009 identified Maghaberry as one of the most expensive in the UK and contained severe criticism of its management.

Over Easter, several prisoners at Maghaberry staged a 36-hour protest over conditions.

In response to questions about the format of the review the minister said his department has drawn up a list of experts to approach to perform the inspection.

The panel will include a member with prison management experience, at least one member from outside Northern Ireland and will be chaired by someone from the legal profession.

Mr Ford was asked about the review plans by several of the committee including Alban Maginness. The SDLP’s Mr Maginness said: “There is an important need for reform of prisons which may well start in Maghaberry but the separation facilities are not the place to begin reform, that is a grave political mistake.”

The minister responded by saying that he thought the separation facilities worked well in the prison and that his review will “focus on the whole of Maghaberry and not just the separation regime”.

Several committee members asked questions regarding the division of responsibility as well as the role of the committee itself and how it related to the work of the Policing Board.

Mr Ford suggested that the committee may work with the department on the development of policy in the hope that the first Justice Bill could be presented in September.

Belfast Telegraph