Editor's Viewpoint: Jails need reform from top to bottom
There can scarcely be any other public service in the UK which has been the subject of more scathing criticism than the Prison Service of Northern Ireland.
Once again it has been examined and found to be wanting in virtually every aspect of its operations. The problems appear to go right from the top of the service to the very basement level with no sector exempt from blame.
Part of the problem - and a large part - is the culture within the service, especially that of the prison officers. The Prison Officers Association is seen in the latest report to be an impediment to change within the system. The main concern of officers appears to be to ensure tight security in jails, a throwback to the days when paramilitary prisoners exerted enormous influence in prisons like the Maze.
In spite of there being more staff than prisoners, inmates are locked up for unduly long periods of time daily and there seems little heed paid to the necessity of rehabilitating prisoners. The POA - and it has to be recognised that 29 of them were murdered by terrorists - are accused of being resistant to change and of preventing management from doing its job properly.
But the faults continue right to the top of the service with no governors appointed to either Maghaberry or Magilligan Prison and no Director General to lead the service. While some may say that the dissident republican threat is stifling reformation of the service, it is an argument that does not hold water. The regime in the Republic of Ireland - where prisons also hold scores of highly dangerous drug gangsters - is more modern and forward-looking.
It is clear that Justice Minister David Ford must address the fundamental flaws in the service outlined in this latest report. He must ensure that the service has the right people at the helm from the very top and that the POA no longer continues to exert undue influence on the prison regime. There is now overwhelming evidence that the system is not functioning properly and there can be no excuses - and no delay - for bringing in root and branch reforms.