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Tuesday, December 1, 1998 Published at 15:25 GMT

N Ireland prison service criticised

The future closure of the Maze Prison has bred low morale

MPs have accused prison officers in Northern Ireland of a basic lack of professional pride in a service plagued by poor morale and high levels of absenteeism.

In a highly critical report, the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said uncertainty over the service's future following the Good Friday agreement was putting a "dangerous strain" on the province's prison system.

It said management's top priority had to be to tackle low morale among staff who fear their jobs could go a result of the early release programme for paramilitary prisoners. This is expected to lead to the closure of the Maze Prison in 2000 and a drastic reduction of the service.

The parliamentary committee said it was "unacceptable" that the service still had not drawn up plans for making the necessary redundancies.

There appeared to be a "widespread and deep-rooted" lack of respect between management and staff who, the report said, "systematically avoided" training programmes aimed at improving the situation.

The MPs called for the appointment of a new prisons ombudsman for Northern Ireland and said the role of the Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales should be extended to cover the province.

The report highlighted "abnormally high" sickness rate, particularly at the Maze, as a sign of the low morale which had led to constant staff shortages.

"The combined problems of low morale and high sickness levels reveal a basic lack of professional pride on the part of officers in the service," the report said.

'Discipline is gone'

The chairman of the Northern Ireland Prison Officers' Association, Finlay Spratt, blamed the low morale on poor management and called for urgent action from government.

"This report bears out what I have been saying for years. You cannot run a prison service if the discipline is gone.

"It's understandable that prison officers have no pride in their job when you consider the poor management team we have. The government needs to take this report on board and look where the Prison Service is going in Northern Ireland and get a bit of pride back into it."

Mr Spratt also called for a benevolent fund to be set up for prison officers, similar to the one established for the RUC.

"We have quite a lot of officers who are pyschologically damaged. There's one woman who was blown up and has never worked again. She didn't even have the money to buy a wheelchair and we raised that for her ourselves with an appeal.

"I would like to see our officers looked after in the same way as the police and I think a public appeal should be launched by the government."

'Unrealistic' rewards

The report also said that measures introduced to reward staff with good attendance records "seem unrealistic", while high level of absenteeism remained a "major obstacle" to making staff training programmes work.

"The present training programme is clearly failing; no training that is systematically avoided by staff can be effective," it said.

The report said the service had no effective personnel policy and found there was a "significant failure of communications" between management and staff.

It emphasised the management's failure to give any indication as to how the redundancies expected to result from the Good Friday agreement would be handled.

"This is unacceptable and places the system within Northern Ireland's Prison Service under dangerous strain," the report said.

"As a matter of urgency, a basic framework setting out the possible options for staff should be made available."

At the same time the committee said it should be an "urgent priority" to redress the imbalance between Protestants and Catholics who accounted for just 6.9% of the service's uniformed and governor grades.

The MPs expressed concern at the service's failure to produce high-calibre candidates for senior managerial posts, which led to the "unsupportable" decision to combine the post of governor of the Maze with that of director of operations.

The report also criticised the service's lack of proper facilities for holding teenage girls under 17 years' old and the absence of a vulnerable prisoners unit for sex offenders and other prisoners at risk of attack from fellow inmates.

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