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Jailhouse blues for prison service

9 June 09 15:42 GMT

A review of the Northern Ireland Prison Service, prompted by the suicide of prisoner Colin Bell, has portrayed an organisation struggling to come to terms with a changing world. BBC News Online looks at what the report reveals about the service.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service is unlike any other prison service in Europe.

For more than 30 years it was expected to deal with thousands of paramilitaries, many of them intent on escape. Twenty-nine members of staff were murdered.

As paramilitary violence lessened and prisoners were released the service faced major changes.

The review team appeared dismayed by the slow pace of change in the organisation describing it as a "rather inward looking organisation, trapped by its own fraught history and wrestling with long-standing difficulties."

Throughout its report the team emphasises that radical change and tough, inspirational management would be necessary to pull the service out of its malaise.

The report points to some management successes, such as driving down very high sick levels but said much more needs to be done.

It said that within prisons there was a lack of internal management accountability and undervaluing of finance and personnel systems.

One of the most significant problems exposed was an "excessive" focus on security to the detriment of other aspects of prison operations.

The report makes clear that the service needs to start recruiting managers from outside its own ranks if there is to be the necessary change of culture.

While it points to many failings among weak managers, the team's toughest words are reserved for some of the rank and file officers and their trade union.

It concludes that Colin Bell was the victim of an "insidious subculture that allowed delinquent behaviour by some junior staff, much of it undetectable because of their isolation from unannounced supervisory visits."

It said that when new night custody officers started they were "quickly subverted" into accepting the culture of that part of the workplace.

The team also said they can't be sure that the "appalling behaviour" of some night duty staff was not mirrored at other prisons.

'Corrosive'

It also refers to a staff survey, carried out in 2006, which revealed that staff were aware of colleagues being under the influence of alcohol while on duty. It was also suggested to the team that this behaviour is still going on.

The team accused the Prison Officers Association (POA) of having a "confrontational" and "corrosive" attitude.

The POA was also accused of undermining disciplinary procedures by maximising every loophole and procedural fault. It also pointed the finger at managers for failing to effectively apply the rules.

The review team makes clear that the Prison Service may have to face more criticism in the near future.

Read the full report

A report of a recent unannounced inspection of Maghaberry by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP) is likely to be published soon.

Also on the horizon is a report following the 2008 visit to Northern Ireland by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (ECPT), which visited Maghaberry and Magilligan.

The review team warn that it "may well make trenchant comments about some aspects of the service."

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