POA head Finlay Spratt says NI prison reform is a mess

Maghabeery prison signs Mr Spratt addressed MLAs the day after three prison officers were assaulted at Maghaberry

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Prison reform in Northern Ireland is "a mess" and "an English answer to an Irish problem" according to the head of the Prison Officers' Association (POA).

Finlay Spratt made the remarks to MLAs at a Department of Justice committee meeting in Stormont on Thursday.

He was speaking a day after three prison officers were assaulted by inmates in Maghaberry Prison.

Mr Spratt claimed the situation in Northern Ireland's prisons was going to get worse because of staff cuts.

He told the justice committee that the reform agenda, known as the Strategic Efficiency and Effectiveness programme, had "dismantled the prison service".

He was also critical of the Director General of the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS), Colin McConnell.

Mr McConnell is leaving NIPS after just over a year in the job to take up a post in Scotland.

The POA leader said he had never had a meeting with Mr McConnell during his time in office.

"Not that in my view he was any good anyway," Mr Spratt added.

'Overpaid'

He also told the committee that the money which was being offered to the prison officers of the future was "a disgrace".

As part of the prison reform programme, NIPS is in the process of recruiting new custody officers, who will replace older prison officers but will be employed on lower rates of pay.

Mr Spratt said the new recruits' maximum pay would be £27,000.

Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney, who is a former republican hunger striker, complimented Mr Spratt on his use of the term "English solution for an Irish problem".

However, Mr McCartney said the Prison Officers' Association had been part of the problem.

He said prisons in Northern Ireland were overstaffed and the officers were overpaid.

Mr Spratt said this was not so, but he agreed there was a need for reform.

"The world's moving on and we have to look at new ways of doing things," Mr Spratt said.

'Strip searching'

DUP committee member Sydney Anderson asked about the situation at Maghaberry Prison, where dissident republican prisoners have been on a so-called "dirty protest".

Mr Spratt replied that it was a matter for government, but said: "It's not very nice for the staff who have to work in those conditions."

Sinn Fein's Jennifer McCann asked about strip searching.

Mr Spratt expressed his support for new technology that would do away with the need for strip searching.

"I, as a prison officer, don't want to go through this process of stripping anyone," he added.

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