Reviewing prisons

Reviewing prisons Northern Ireland’s prisons are too focused on controlling rather than changing inmates, according to several critical reports. Peter Cheney summarises the ongoing prison review and looks at why reform has been held up.

Prison policy was, for many years, inseparable from the Troubles. The hunger strikes and the early releases after the Good Friday Agreement turned the media’s attention on the Maze. Thirty prison officers and other staff have been killed due to their work, with many others injured or threatened.

Now, in changed times, the Prison Service is under pressure to reform, after mounting criticism of how it works. Northern Ireland currently has three prisons:

• Maghaberry (high security);

• Magilligan (medium and low security);

• Hydebank Wood young offenders centre (also includes women’s unit).

“A review of the conditions of detention, management and oversight of all prisons” was promised in the Hillsborough Agreement. It was formally announced on 21 June 2010 and started work on 21 July. David Ford hoped that the review’s work would provide a “route map” for the Prison Service’s future direction.

The review was split into two stages. The first report, due last autumn, will focus on the widely criticised regime at Maghaberry and take previous reports into account. It will also look at development plans and the Prison Service’s programme for workforce reform.

A second report will take a broader view of other prisons and the service as a whole. It would therefore consider Magilligan’s replacement, a possible women’s prison and the future development of the service, including its future composition, and its culture and ethos.

The first report will now be published this month, with second one due over the summer.

Previous reports into the Prison Service have been strongly critical, with Criminal Justice Inspection describing it as “struggling to make the change from a traditional ‘turnkey’ prison service” to one which focuses on resettlement and rehabilitation.

These have highlighted the need for reform but also put a large administrative burden on the service. Nearly 1,200 recommendations have been put forward, of which 600 were outstanding in July 2009. The service also has 28 different action plans.

CJI’s December 2010 report examined why it has been so hard to deliver “real and sustained improvement on the ground.”

Inspectors said that the security-focused culture developed during the Troubles had been “difficult to shake off” but also acknowledged the continuing threat, who had named governors and staff as targets.


In summary, Northern Ireland’s prison system is small and expensive, with the Troubles forming the backdrop to how it works. The number of prisoners reached a peak of 3,000 in 1979. Paramilitaries now account for 4 per cent of prisoners.

Northern Ireland would otherwise have had a relatively small number of inmates. It had just under 700 prisoners in the late 1960s. The province sent 88 people to prison for every 100,000 residents in 2008, which compares to 76 in the Republic, 152 in Scotland, and 153 in England and Wales.

Imprisoning people for unpaid fines has also filled cells. Of the 3,161 people who entered prison in 2009-2010, 1,778 were fine defaulters who were jailed briefly. This normally only accounted for 23 prisoners at any one time.

Despite having 1,883 uniformed officers, staffing levels in prisons were often “insufficient”. Officers work alternate weekends, so only half the staff are available at that time.


Inspectors found a “disconnect” between Prison Service headquarters and individual prisons, and “destructive” industrial relations, which were reportedly worse at Maghaberry than elsewhere.

The Prison Officers Association (POA) had an “all-pervasive influence” throughout the system and no one could recall a dispute which it had lost. This so- called “veto on change” was partly due to local agreements it had negotiated with governors over the years. In response,

the POA said that management was weak and it was representing its members.

No main grade prison officers have been recruited since 1994 and few are leaving the service. The Prison Service says that there has been no need to recruit new officers, due to the Good Friday Agreement releases and the closure of two prisons: Crumlin Road and the Maze. Other officers have been recruited since 1994 to perform specific roles e.g. night custody. The basic prison officer salary is £37,364 in Northern Ireland and £28,890 in England and Wales. The staff-prisoner ratio (1.14) is high compared to elsewhere while the cost per prisoner place is the highest in the UK (£94,805).

The “close nature” of the service made it hard to manage. Junior and senior officers had lived and socialised in “safe” areas during the Troubles, and shared the same cars for security reasons.

At Maghaberry, officers had 129 rest days per year, compared to the national norm of 96. Prison Service sick absence stood at 12.7 days per head, compared to 8.2 in the PSNI, and cost £4.6 million per annum. If staff shortages occurred, officers would stop working on resettlement or education.

Security and control of prisoners was seen as “paramount” so officers kept their distance from prisoners. Prison officers, though, are expected to be a good example to inmates by modelling good behaviour and building up trust.

Officers found it difficult to work in the “two worlds” of security and care for prisoners. Some dismissed probation officers and psychologists as “fluffies” and “do-gooders” with too much emphasis being put on rehabilitation.


Prison Officers Association spokesman Finlay Spratt said the CJI report was “sensationalised” and put the blame on managers and “centralisation”. Changes had to be made but not by “quangos” or “armchair generals”.

The SDLP wants to see a Patten-style reform. Alban Maginness has called on David Ford to “face down any vested interests”. Sinn Féin demands “root-and- branch reform”. Raymond McCartney condemned the POA’s “conflict culture” and said the number of highly-paid prison officers was unacceptable.

This is strongly rejected by the DUP. Lord Morrow said it is “not credible to draw an exact comparison between prisons on the mainland and in Northern Ireland.” He wants any reform to be “tailored” to the province’s own circumstances.

While the UUP believes that prison reform is “much needed”, David McNarry said that “the anxieties are whether the requirements, which are massive, are able to be costed into the departmental four- year budget plan.” He adds: “If not, reform will prove incredibly difficult.”

With reform having been promised, delivering it will be one of the highest priorities this year for David Ford and the Prison Service’s new Director-General, Colin McConnell. Any change must come at the same time as the planned budget for running costs drops from £149.9 million to £114 million over the next four years.

Key stats (2009 – 2010)

Prison officers 1889
Prison population 1449
Sentenced 930
Remanded 492
Women 45
Fine defaulters 23
Immigration detainees 4
Running cost £137.4m

Review members

Dame Anne Owers
(former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, England and Wales)

Paul Leighton
(former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable)

Clodach McGrory
(barrister and Parole Commissioner)

Fergus McNeill
(senior lecturer, Glasgow School of Social Work)

Phil Wheatley
(Former HM Prison Service Director-General, governor and prison officer)

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