Northern Prison Reform 'Critical', Says Ford

Prison reform in the North is now at a turning point. According to the Stormont Justice Minister David Ford, a new report by the Prison Review Team is a watershed for the Northern Ireland Prison Service.

In a statement to the Assembly today, the Minister accepted the finding of Dame Anne Owers that the next six months will be crucial if the opportunity to fundamentally transform the service is to become a reality.

He said that reforming the Prison Service - routed in security based historical working practices into one with modern, progressive regimes focusing on addressing offender behaviour and making our community safer - will take years to implement but that he is committed to driving through the changes.

The Alliance Leader David Ford said: "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.

"Transforming our prisons was a commitment in the Hillsborough Castle Agreement and if we are to grasp the opportunity that now exists and build a new prison system that helps make our communities safer, then all political parties must embrace the reform agenda," he said.

The report makes 40 recommendations, some of which fall outside the responsibility of the Prison Service and the Minister will discuss it with both the Justice Committee and Executive colleagues.

David Ford 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.

"Whilst expressing their disappointment at progress to date, the Review Team's report also acknowledges that there is a sense of change and purpose at the top of the Prison Service. I am confident that we will soon see a step-change in the pace of the reform programme."

Over the past eight months, Prison Service management have been putting in place the building blocks to deliver the necessary reforms.

David Ford said: "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," he continued.

"Since the publication of the interim report, management have made progress in a number of areas.

"Interviews to appoint an experienced change management team have taken place, preparation for the introduction of a new core day across all establishments is ongoing, work on a new target operating model for the future of the Prison Service has been developed and work continues to define new roles for Prison staff."

He added that a process of negotiation has also commenced with both the Prison Officers' Association and the Prison Governors' Association and said: "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."


The Minister also said that one of the most disturbing aspects of the report is the differentials in outcomes for various groups of prisoners.

"Both the Director General and I are clear that there are no grounds on which discriminatory or preferential treatment because of religion, ethnicity or nationality will be tolerated.

"I have asked the Director General to ensure Governors take immediate action to address this issue and to report back to me. I have also agreed with the Director General that in order to ensure transparency measures to deal with this issue should be included in the Department's Equality Action Plan."

Meanwhile, the Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NIACRO), Olwen Lyner, today welcomed the Report of the Prison Review Team, but re-iterated her warning to the Assembly and Executive that unless clear leadership is demonstrated on its implementation, progress cannot and will not be made.

She said: "The Review Team are clear that what distinguishes this Report from others is that it is neither an inspection nor an investigation: it is a one off opportunity to re-shape the role of prisons within the justice system. The recommendations in the Report are not restricted to working practices or operations: they address the fundamental purpose of prisons and their impact on communities.

"Put simply, the Prison Service we currently have in Northern Ireland does not do enough to rehabilitate people to reduce re-offending and decrease the potential for people to become victims of crime.

"There are three critical aspects now required to ensure delivery on the recommendations of this Report. We expect leadership to be shown by the Executive. Ministers are due to meet on Thursday of next week, which gives each department almost two weeks to consider how they can contribute to a joint response to this Report. Following that, we expect a costed implementation plan to be produced, so that everyone is clearly signed up to investing in this programme of change.

"And then we expect a mechanism to be developed which will enable communities to engage more effectively with the prison system, to understand the impact of offending on communities and work together to reduce the risk of people re-offending on release. We cannot afford to let this opportunity pass. There can be no doubt after today's Assembly debate that our politicians feel strongly about the issues raised, but they now need to turn that energy into a clear commitment to considering carefully how best this Review can be implemented," she said.


The Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Pauline McCabe has also commented on the report by the Prison Review Team led by Dame Anne Owers: "This robust report along with the interim report published in February, comprehensively sets out the need for Prison reform and details the changes that must be made and the need for urgency.

"In doing so it addresses important issues set out in complaint and death in custody investigation reports produced by my office," she added.

"I congratulate Dame Anne and her team on the work they have undertaken. The Owers' review has now delivered a report, which must be recognised as the complete package and implemented in full.

"I completely support Dame Anne's conclusion that nothing short of a fully integrated approach with cross party support will deliver the solutions required to create a safer society in Northern Ireland and to ensure a more efficient use of public money."


Related Irish News Stories
Click here for the latest headlines.

08 July 2016
Fitzgerald Unveils Prison Officer Recruitment Campaign
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has unveiled a new recruitment campaign which aims to recruit up to 360 prison officers over the next three years.
14 December 2010
North's Prisons 'Cost Too Much To Run'
It has emerged that there are more people working in the North of Ireland's jails than there are inmates to supervise. A report - just published - has also described industrial relations in NI prisons as "destructive". It said that the cost is very high too, almost £95,000 a year - some two and a half times more than anywhere else in the UK.
01 March 2011
'Dysfunctional' Prison Service Faces Reform
As many as 500 prison officers could be made redundant as part of a major, fundamental reform of the prison service in the North. There is a severance package being proposed as one of the recommendations in an interim report published by a review team.
15 June 2011
Lock-up Was Factor In Prisoner's Death
The practice of locking up prisoners for almost all of the day has been identified as a major factor in a recent spate of custody suicides in the North. The issue has come to light after a teenage prisoner - who was locked in his cell for around 22 hours a day because of short-staffing - committed suicide.
18 May 2015
Call For Justice Minister To Provide Safety Assurances At Cork Prison
The Justice Minister is being called to give assurances about the safety of prisoners and staff following a fatal stabbing at Cork Prison. Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin said the attack was a "serious breach of security".