Radical overhaul of jails is essential
Justice Minister David Ford is correct in his assessment of Northern Ireland's prison service. After yet another damning report it is blindingly evident that the system needs radical reform. There must be no simple tampering with how the prisons are run, instead it must be a Patten-style change as implemented to change the culture and nature of the police force in the province.
Yesterday's report produced the same dismal list of complaints about the prison service as have several other reports in the past. It is too costly; the number of prison staff outstrips the number of prisoners; the prison service is top heavy with management; there is a culture of security rather than reform within the system even though many of those in jail are there for crimes such as non-payment of fines; and even staff are demoralised and dysfunctional.
None of this criticism should detract from the lifetime of service given by many prison officers, especially during the years when our jails housed the most dangerous prisoners in Europe and when 29 officers were murdered. The prison officers performed very hazardous duties at very real and very grave risk to themselves and that service must not be forgotten or ignored.
However the Prison Officers Association must also recognise that times have changed and that jails are no longer simply high security holding centres, but also places where prisoners' offending behaviour needs to be challenged and, if possible, reformed. The union must not be allowed to stifle reform as it has done in the past. Mr Ford should ensure that change within the prison system is comprehensive in its scale, bringing staff on board and making jails a better environment for both the inmates and those who work there.
There have been too many reports with strikingly similar findings to allow the current situation to continue. The time for action is now and there should be no further prevarication on this vital issue.