Justice Minister calls Prison Service report a 'watershed'

David Ford Justice Minister David Ford ordered the review of the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

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Justice Minister David Ford has called an independent review of the Prison Service a 'watershed'.

The minister revealed the details of the latest review of Northern Ireland's prisons to the assembly on Monday.

Up to 500 prison officers are expected to lose their jobs in the shake-up.

The review team, headed by Dame Anne Owers, has made 40 recommendations on how the Northern Ireland Prison Service can operate more efficiently.

An interim report by the same review team in February, labelled the prison service as dysfunctional, demoralised and ineffective.

The justice minister ordered the review. He described the report as a "watershed" for the Prison Service as he accepted its findings.

But Mr Ford said that it may take some time to implement a more modern, progressive systems of dealing with offenders.

Key recommendations

  • Maghaberry Prison should be 'reconfigured' into three smaller prisons
  • Find an alternative to fully body searches of prisoners
  • Better healthcare and assessment of prisoners' health needs
  • New working patterns for staff to be established within six months
  • Under 18s should not be held at Hydebank Wood
  • Statutory time limits for bringing cases to trial, phased in over three years

"This report both reinforces the need for fundamental reform of the Northern Ireland Prison Service and clearly sets out the size of the challenge ahead, not just for my department but for the assembly," he said.

"Any thorough and robust review of our prison system was inevitably going to make for uncomfortable reading as many others have in recent years. This report is no exception.

"End to end reform of the Prison Service cannot be achieved overnight and it has taken time to put in place the solid foundations on which to move forward.

"It is therefore vital that we get the process right to ensure change is not only delivered but is embedded across every aspect of the Northern Ireland Prison Service."

The justice minister said that the coming months are crucial to the pace of change.

"The director general, Colin McConnell, and I recognise that the next six months are crucial for the transformation of the Prison Service and I intend to make a series of announcements on various aspects of the reform programme including publishing details of a staff exit scheme."

Mr McConnell said that his management team was "committed to delivering" the recommendations suggested by Dame Anne.

He added that the Prison Service was "well positioned" to deliver the reforms necessary.

Prisoner ombudsman Pauline McCabe said the report could not be viewed as a wish-list that could be cherry-picked.

"The prison system is complex and government agencies and departments from justice, to health and employment and learning need to sign up to the change programme," she said.

"Action is also required to implement alternatives to prison for fine default, to replace short custodial sentences with community sentences and to reduce the time that prisoners are held on remand".

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